Exit through the gift shop

As we exit one year and enter the next, there has been some interesting recent discussion in the HRINZ group on LinkedIn on the subject of exit interviews. The justification given for the traditional exit interview process was said to be a combination of organisational development through direct and candid opinion on a company’s processes, people, work environment etc, while also an opportunity to end the relationship on a positive note by encouraging the exiting employee to become a brand ambassador for the organisation.

I offered a different view which is that I think exit interviews are a waste of time. It’s a view I’ve come to over many years of doing exit interviews and compiling annual exit summary reports. No other aspect of HR work have I ever considered to be so banal, futile and worthless. I appreciate this won’t necessarily be a popular view so let me explain.

My problem with exit interviews is simple. This is one of those classic areas where nearly every HR team ticks the box and dutifully interviews leavers, and then does nothing with the information collected. Or worse, we assure the exiting staff member the discussion is all in strict confidence and their comments won’t be attributable to them personally, and then we proceed to tell the person’s manager exactly what was said about them or their division.

If we have to encourage an exiting employer to become a brand ambassador then we clearly have a poor culture and need to be addressing that anyway by other means. Similarly, if we are relying on what exiting and often disaffected and disillusioned people are saying about our culture and management then we’ve got our priorities all wrong. As HR people, aren’t we going to be far more effective by making sure we know how our workforce is feeling BEFORE they make the decision to leave? Aren’t we are going to add far more value to the business by being aware of the relative strengths and weaknesses of our various divisional management teams and where our turnover is highest and then doing something about it? People generally leave managers not organisations as we know. Therefore I have come to the view that we must focus on listening to and keeping the talent we have, not the ones who have checked out already.

I also question what real insight we get from these “interviews” and don’t understand why we feel we need to know what someone liked about the organisation when they joined five years ago, what the company needs to do better, whether there is sufficient communication from senior management, whether they got enough career development feedback and whether we could have done anything to make them stay. It’s all too late by then. Shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. We are getting the same information from our staff surveys anyway.

And what do we really do with this data when we’ve collected it? In my entire career, I am yet to work in any organisation that actually does anything meaningful with the exit interview information other than produce nice little reports periodically that no one in senior management really reads. I can’t remember a single instance of an organisation or department doing anything differently as a direct result of an exit report. And that’s my issue with the whole exercise. If it doesn’t add any value, we shouldn’t be doing it. Simple as that.

Honestly, any decent line manager (and their HR Business Partner if they are doing their job) should always know how the people in their areas are feeling/thinking already and where they are at in terms of their career so that no departure should ever come as a complete surprise to any manager who is in tune with their team.

If you think I’ve lost the plot and you absolutely must continue to capture exit information then use technology and do it via an online questionnaire. Believe me, you get much the same information as you get from face to face interviews and you don’t have to waste your valuable time listening to someone who is either a) not going to say anything with complete honesty because they don’t want to burn bridges or b) is going to use the opportunity to trash every manager they have ever worked for and blame everyone but themselves for the way their career has stalled. And no, you won’t get any better data if you follow up with them again in six months time for a post-exit interview!

Don’t forget that you need a certain level of turnover to keep things fresh and bring new ideas and energy into your orgaanisation so why waste time trying to eliminate that? They’ve already checked out so just send them on the way with heartfelt thanks for their efforts, the inevitable farewell card and gift from their colleagues and let’s not pretend that anything anywhere is going to change as a result of their decision to leave. Sorry, but no one’s irreplaceable and that’s business.

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