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Are Exit Interviews of Any Value?

When People Leave, They May or May Not Have Some Positive Feedback For You.

By Steve Schumacher

Recently, a client of mine got some information from his HR department about some comments made by an employee during his exit interview. The employee had been with the company for more than five years and had a good track record of performance over that time.

When the exiting employee was asked to participate in an exit interview, he agreed and proceeded to slam the company, his boss and leadership of the company, in general. My friend, who is several levels above the exiting employee, was very surprised by the comments. He told me that he always thought of that employee as someone with a lot of potential and that he seemed to be a model employee. Clearly, there was something going on that was only known to the exiting employee and was not picked up by management during the employee’s tenure with the company.

As a leader, it is important to know what people think about you and your company, but are exit interviews the only way to gather that information?

In my experience, the higher you go in an organization, the less feedback you get from employees. Many employees seem to share the good news with their bosses – and keep the bad thoughts to themselves – for fear of looking like troublemakers. Then, if and when they choose to leave the company, they vent their frustrations to the unsuspecting HR person.

Some employees, on the other hand, will use this opportunity to blast everything associated with their employment with the company. People that do this are not concerned about burning bridges and throwing people under the bus in their last opportunity to get things off their chests. In many cases, managers are blindsided by the information once it gets back to them.

As a leader, what an exiting employee has to say during an exit interview should not be a surprise to you. If it is, you should examine why it is a surprise and what you can do to minimize those surprises in the future.

Seek constant feedback from employees. Meet with your employees face-to-face on a regular basis with no agenda. Just hang out with them and build relationships. When employees feel comfortable with you, they will tend to be more honest. When that trust is built, you can ask for straight feedback from them regarding the important issues.

Do not create communication triangles. When you rely on third parties to gather information from employees, you are creating a communication triangle. Information that gets passed between three people is often diluted or misinterpreted. Most communication comes through body language, and when you have a messenger delivering that communication, you miss out on the body language.

Understand that people can be afraid. As a boss, you hold all of the good things and bad things for your employees. That can be very intimidating when it comes to people giving you straight feedback. It does not mean that you are a bad person; it simply means that you are the boss. Work hard to reduce that fear in employees. Building trust is the key to reducing that fear.

Implement formal employee feedback. Sometimes, utilizing a third party to facilitate focus groups and employee attitude surveys can be helpful in gathering feedback. Employees like to be anonymous with their feedback, to avoid any perceived retribution. Yes, this is using a third party, but it can be a starting point. The key is to put together action plans around the information you receive and carry out those action plans, keeping employees in the loop constantly.

Do exit interviews yourself. Do not rely on HR to gather information from exiting employees. The best situation is to interview exiting employees yourself. That way, you can ask specific vs. boilerplate questions. You can also get the body language from the employees. Caution – if an employee is honest it might make you a bit defensive. Try to manage that defensiveness or the employee will clam up.

In summary, information from exit interviews can be helpful as you develop your leadership skills and work hard to make your employees happy and productive. The key is that the feedback you get should not be a surprise. It should just be a summary of experience that you already know about.