The Problem With Exit Interviews

In just the last few months I’ve had no less than half a dozen people who were leaving their jobs ask me what I thought they should say during their exit interviews. When the first few asked I just naively said “the truth.” They kind of stared at me like I was some sort of idiot. (okay, just keep your snide remarks to yourself here 😊)

I guess I hadn’t really thought that out.

With the last few who have asked me I answered with a question. I asked, “what are you thinking of saying?”

Their answer indicated that the truth, at least the whole truth was nearly out of the question. They saw nothing to gain by ratting out a crummy boss, complaining about a hostile work environment, or uncompetitive compensation and benefits. They didn’t want to go out as a negative complainer.

What they really wanted to know was how much information they should share, if any, or should they pretty much hold everything back and just go quietly into the night. I guess I had never really thought much about the various strategies involved in exit interviews but these people had raised my curiosity.

So I started asking around. I asked people from different industries, different levels within companies, and different amounts of experience at their current jobs what they would say at an exit interview and the answers I received surprised me. Most people saw an exit interview as a necessary evil that they needed to carefully manage. They said they would choose their words carefully so as to not offend. Not one saw a benefit to “burning any bridges.”

The ones who said they felt an obligation to be truthful said they couldn’t be fully truthful. They didn’t think anything would really change so even those who were willing to share something “bad” would not come clean as to how truly bad it was.

I’ve come to the conclusion that conducting exit interviews is a little bit like closing the gate after the horse has left the corral. 

So here’s a message for those organizations and leaders who are still robotically conducting exit interviews. You had better be certain that the reason you like exit interviews isn’t because you DON’T want to really know what’s going on. The most successful leaders ask the questions even if they think they won’t like the answer. 

To grow your organization you must listen intently to what you don’t want to hear. Too many exit interviews merely confirm that “it wasn’t anything the company did,” it wasn’t anything the boss did,” in fact, there is really no reason I’m leaving at all. Guess it was just time for a change or I think I have a better opportunity somewhere else. 

Clearly there was a serious, tangible reason that the person leaving your organization decided to leave. If you can’t find out what that reason is then why bother with an exit interview?

Most answers in an exit interview leave the organization and it’s leaders off the hook for losing people. In my opinion that’s why little change comes from the “information” learned in an exit interview.  

If you’re losing good people find out how to keep them BEFORE they leave. 

So maybe you ought to consider “stay interviews.” These are conducted on a very regular basis,  at a minimum once a year. Asking a few times a year during regular “bring-ups” is not too often. The two big questions to ask are, “what could the company do to keep you?” and “what would entice you to leave the company?”

Surprisingly most research indicates that the first question is commonly asked in one form or another during an exit interview. That’s way too late. 

Finding good employees is only going to become more challenging as the retirement of Baby Boomers speeds up, there just won’t be enough people to fill all the open positions. Rather then jumping into the rat race of finding new people maybe you ought to consider focusing on keeping the ones you already have.

4 thoughts on “The Problem With Exit Interviews

  1. Hmmm, no comments on this counter-intuitive piece since 2016? In my experience, if people don’t respond honestly or are guarded (what should I say?), there is a problem with the set up (they fear retribution, etc.). So what has the exit interviewer done to make the person feel safe (or more likely, what is the interviewer doing to make the leaving employee fear retribution?). How can you argue against collecting accurate information about why a person is leaving? And, BTW, your suggestion about asking employees about whether they intend to stay with the company? Ah, that is called an employee survey which most successful companies do annually.

    1. I don’t argue against collecting ACCURATE info on why someone is leaving a company. The problem is that the information is NOT accurate and even if it is it’s too late to save that employee.

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