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.

What Exit Interviews Miss

ExitLet’s begin with full disclosure on my part; I’ve never been on either side of an exit interview. I’ve had very few jobs so there has been little opportunity for me to provide my own feedback and I’ve never had anyone who worked for me quit. I have never in my life sat on either side of an exit interview desk.

But I’ve seen the results of many exit interviews and virtually every single one of them had the same thing in common; they said, if the words of the departing employee, why they were leaving.

Most companies do not know the reasons why employees stay or the actual reasons why they leave. They sort of attempt to figure out the later with an exit interview but exit interviews almost never differentiate between factors that make the new job attractive to the departing employee, and the reasons why the employee was prompted to consider leaving his or her current job in the first place.

For example, many employees report “better compensation” as one of their main reasons for leaving. Research revealed that these same employees were not, in fact, originally unhappy with their compensation. Instead, other reasons caused them to consider leaving their current job, such as lack of advancement opportunities or a feeling of being taken for granted.

Because of this situation, information from exit interviews often fail to reveal the actual causes of a company’s key employees.

The job market continues to pick up around the U.S. and companies can lose employees even when the employee isn’t looking to change jobs. If you’re not yet aware of this then consider this post a wake-up call – you’re best employees either are or soon will be recruited by other companies.

Most of your key employees will turn down recruiters right up until the one time that they don’t. What causes the change that makes someone act on a recruiter’s call at a particular point in time? That’s what you had better be searching for in your next exit interview.

Something changed, something in their work situation deteriorated to the point that they were vulnerable to an offer from another company. If you don’t know what deteriorated then you will not be able to fix it. If you do not fix it then it will happen again. When it happens again you will lose another key employee.

It’s a pretty darn good time to be looking for work, it’s so good that your employees can find another job when they are not even looking for one. It’s a terrible time to have issues in your organization that would give your best employees a reason to leave because they now have ample opportunity to leave.

The answers you need to keep your top performers can come from asking the right questions in an exit interview. Instead of asking only “why are you leaving?” perhaps try asking “what could have made you stay?”

You may not like the answers but if use the information to build a stronger organization you most certainly will like the end result.