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How to Make Exit Interviews Work for Your Organization – Not Against It

exitOver the years, I’ve conducted many exit interviews for clients across various industries. And while I recommend them as a way for organizations to continuously improve, my recommendation is not without reservations.

Yes, the exit interview is a worthy best practice (find out why and get a great template here). But it isn’t off limits to tough questions like:

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  • Do exit interviews provide meaningful, actionable data?
  • How honest can we expect (soon-to-be-ex) employees to be – especially since they’re the ones who decided to end the relationship?
  • Why do we only conduct exit interviews when employees leave voluntarily?

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Here’s my answer to these core questions:

Do exit interviews provide meaningful, actionable data?

Possibly, but not automatically. Exit interviews can work, as long as organizations know what information they can – and cannot – likely obtain. For example, organizations can reasonably expect to learn how employees generally perceive compensation, benefits and the overall organizational culture. However, it’s unlikely (and I’d say, unreasonable to expect) to learn about how much effort employees put into their relationship with their boss, the impact of the daily dynamic between them and their manager, or if something specific prompted their decision to leave. That type of information — when provided at all — usually becomes known to the organization through a complaint, or other dialogue outside of the exit interview framework.

How honest can we expect (soon-to-be-ex) employees to be – especially since they’re the ones who decided to end the relationship?

Conceptually, exit interviews assume that employees will be as honest “on their way out” as they would be at any other time in their employment (maybe more so?). This assumption is theoretically appealing, but flawed in practice. I have conducted many exit interviews with employees who I knew were unhappy with their supervisor, their role, and in many other areas of their employment, but chose not to disclose this. Not because they were deceitful, but because they: wanted to avoid burning bridges; preferred to focus on the positives; or failed to see the point of highlighting a problem when they cannot be part of the solution.
What this means, is that organizations need to ask if exit interviews are the only time they should collect feedback. If the answer is yes (and, frankly, I don’t think it should be), then at the very least, they should accept that the data will be biased to some degree.

Why do we only conduct exit interviews when employees leave voluntarily?

Typically, organizations don’t conduct exit interviews on terminated employees, because they assume that they know why they’re leaving. But do they? Yes and no. Yes, they know the factual reasons that substantiate the termination (e.g., chronic inexplicable absenteeism). But no, they often don’t know the employee’s perceptions and opinions about “what didn’t work” about the job. Though rarely thought of this way, terminated employees are actually a rich and valuable source of data which can be used for continuous improvement.

Frankly, I’m not sure how we would actually conduct effective exit interviews for terminated employees. But I think it’s essential to be aware that exit interviews fail to provide the full picture when they’re only conducted for employees who choose to leave, and fail to capture the voice of those who are told to leave.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, as with any worthwhile practice, exit interviews should make sense within the organization’s culture. And in my experience, the best way to achieve this alignment is to work backwards. That is, organizations should determine what they NEED to know (and not what they WANT to know!), and then develop feedback mechanisms that link the right questions at the right time to provide those answers. This could require:

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  • linking exit interviews with other feedback strategies and practices
  • changing what is asked
  • changing who is being asked
  • changing who is asking

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Or, it may mean eliminating exit interviews altogether. Too often, I’ve seen exit interviews used as a “high trust” practice in a “low trust” culture, and as a result, the data is used to confirm an organization’s pre-conceived notions – and not to teach them something new, which is the fundamental function of exit interviews in the first place.

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