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Why Exit Interviews Are Too Little, Too Late

9 months ago by Rose Hunt

Why Exit Interviews Are Too Little, Too Late

Exit Sign

It’s not you, it’s me. 

A polite lie we’re more used to associating with tactful breakups, but one that many of us have also paraphrased during an exit interview. Even once we’ve secured a new job, it’s only natural to feel hesitant about telling our current employer our true motivations for leaving – after all, we may still need to call upon them for a reference, and there’s no sense in burning bridges. On top of that, it just feels awkward - even a little rude - to share all the secret resentments that may have been building over the months or years. For this reason and many others, the traditional exit interview is gradually waning in popularity. Instead, more proactive methods of gathering genuinely useful and honest employee feedback are taking its place. 

Why do exit interviews exist?

Exit interviews are essentially a method of harvesting information surrounding what’s keeping people within an organisation, and what’s driving them away. Employee feedback can reveal a great deal about organisational culture, and when acted upon, can create a stronger, more harmonious workplace. The overarching goal for any organisation, of course, is to retain valued employees; research has demonstrated that high turnover predicts low performance – and vice versa. In order to maintain a competitive advantage, figuring out the real reasons people are leaving a company is therefore key. 

So, what’s the problem?

Although a fantastic idea in principle, there are a few different reasons why exit interviews often turn out to be useless in practice.

  1. Sometimes, information is collated from employees, but never acted upon. In some cases, HR professionals are scared to pass on feedback to senior leaders, fearful of receiving backlash themselves. In fact, a Harvard Business Review study revealed that less than one-third of executives could give a specific example of action taken due to exit interview data. 
  2. As we touched on above, all too often, employees feel compelled to sugar coat their experience within the company so as not to cause any hard feelings, which means the answers extracted are ultimately unreliable. Additionally, if the plain and simple truth is that an employee is leaving for a pay rise, they’ll often feel unable to articulate this, especially if a company has invested heavily in their professional development. They may therefore feel the need to provide justifications that are false or misleading.  
  3. It’s human nature for HR departments to sometimes dismiss the feedback of departing employees as personal gripes that have little to do with the wider organisation.
  4. If employees had good relationships with senior leaders within the organisation, they’d already be aware of all relevant feedback. 
  5. Believe it or not, people are often unreliable narrators of their own experiences. The peak-end rule is a psychological phenomenon which means that our recollections are often based on our most intense memories of an experience and the way an experience ends, rather than the way something really was. This means, for example, that if a team member is constantly at odds with their manager but they make up as they announce their resignation, they’re much more likely to speak of the relationship positively in spite of past reality. 

Perhaps the biggest issue of all, however, is also the most obvious – by the time an exit interview rolls around, it’s already too late. From an employee’s point of view, if an organisation were truly interested in what they had to say, they wouldn’t be in that position in the first place. Even if the meeting is used as an opportunity to make a counteroffer, waiting until the point of departure to do so only emphasises the lack of effort that was made beforehand. It’s also worth bearing in mind that employees don’t have to take part in exit interviews if they don’t want to, and in fact might feel more comfortable refusing if there exists a culture of fear and suspicion. Of course, all of this begs the question…

What’s the alternative to exit interviews?

Ultimately, the real aim of the exercise is to produce honest, actionable insights, and there are several ways to achieve this that may prove more successful than the traditional exit interview. 

Stay interviews

According to research, 40% of employees had at least a “moderate chance of changing their exit decision” if someone had checked in with them more frequently about their happiness at work or asked what else they needed. ‘Stay interviews’ are a proactive (rather than reactive) approach to employee retention, and involve a one-on-one structured interview between a manager or HR representative and an employee. This is a chance to have an honest discussion, build trust, and identify which aspects of company culture employees really value most. 

Regular anonymous employee feedback

Because people often feel hesitant about delivering feedback when their name’s attached to it, providing team members access to an anonymous online portal can help encourage honesty with no fear of repercussions. This strategy also helps employees to feel that their opinions are heard and valued.

Skip level interviews

This is when an employee meets with their manager’s boss for an honest discussion about what’s currently working for them, and what’s holding them back. This can help to open up about their team’s dynamics, as well as discuss topics they may feed hesitant to raise with their immediate supervisor. 

Employee focus groups

If you’re struggling for ideas on how to improve your organisation’s culture, what better way than to ask employees to help decide for themselves? Providing an open forum to kick around ideas can be a powerful and democratic way to allow team members to shape an organisation for the better, and help them feel they’ve truly played a role in how a business operates. 

Mentoring and sponsorship

Connecting employees with a mentor or sponsor that holds a more senior position within the organisation can help them to feel like they have a direct line of communication with someone in a place to make a practical difference. Because they have the opportunity to develop a genuine and close relationship with a mentor or sponsor, they’ll also feel more comfortable sharing their true opinions and feeling as though they will be heard. 

In conclusion, although the traditional exit interview has laudable aims at heart, it’s often simply too little, too late. There will often be valid reasons an employee is leaving, but by that point, they’ve moved on, and are more interested in preserving a positive relationship than with helping to reduce an organisation’s turnover rate. Instead, organisations should focus their efforts on reaching employees before they’ve reached the point of handing in their notice, as this is the point at which meaningful retention action can be taken. By doing so, organisations can produce a valuable feedback loop to increase retention rates and improve employee experience for good. 

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