BY SUZANNE LUCAS
Even when promised up one side and down the other that individual answers will be kept confidential, a departing employee is unlikely to believe that statements such as “I’m leaving because my manager is a jerk” won’t eventually get back to the relevant party. Because a manager who’s a jerk isn’t likely to be someone who takes negative feedback well, their former reports may fear jeopardizing being able to use him or her as a good reference.
Consequently, those employees probably won’t be willing to speak frankly during the exit interview. So if departing employees aren’t likely to be entirely honest, should companies hold exit interviews at all? The short answer is yes. The long answer is yes—but only if you ask for constructive criticism, understand how to use the information you’re given, and focus on trends. Here’s how to ensure that your exit interviews are effective.
COVER YOUR BASES WITH THE BASICS
Even when they’re reluctant to open up completely during an exit interview, most employees will still be fairly straightforward about a few basic topics. When assessing your own company’s policies and procedures, It’s important to consider outgoing employees’ answers to questions on the following ‘big four’ subjects:
.. New salary: Is your new salary higher? Did you take a pay cut?
.. New title: Are you making a lateral move? Or getting promoted?
.. New employer: Are you staying in the industry? Becoming more specialized?
.. General company policies: How do you feel about paid time off, flexible schedules, work hours, etc.?
For instance, you can learn a lot about your own company’s career-development process by examining the types of positions your employees are taking. If too many people are leaving to take promotions elsewhere, it may be time to examine your company’s performance review and promotion process. Similarly, if too many people are willing to go through the time-consuming effort to find new jobs that offer the same pay and responsibilities as their current positions, company’s current team structures and workloads may need a review.
In addition, feedback about your company’s policies can lead to important procedural changes. If enough people start saying that your health plans stink, then your health plans stink. If people keep saying that the organization doesn’t offer a reasonable vacation plan, then it’s doesn’t offer a reasonable vacation plan. When you hear this sort of feedback, believe it—or continue to lose star employees.
ASK FOR CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM—AND KNOW HOW TO USE IT
Should you try to move beyond the “big four” for more nuanced feedback? Absolutely! But be sure to ask clear questions and have a process in place for following up on the feedback you receive.
For instance, if you simply ask, “Why are you leaving?” and get “Because my manager is a jerk” in response, it’s hard to act upon that information. Do you report that response back to the manager in question? (If you do that, there’s a good chance that you’ll ruin the future reference for the employee.) Do you notify the manager’s boss that there may be a problem?
Providing individual feedback is more complicated than generating a report with overall performance numbers—and, because of the subjective nature of feedback, could yield inaccurate data shaped by personal bias. If you want exiting employees to provide more useful feedback, don’t make them feel as though they’re just naming names or complaining. Instead, use questions that elicit constructive criticism:
.. What changes would have made to your time with us?
.. How did your career advance during your time here? What held you back?
.. Would you ever be interested in returning to work here? Why or why not?
.. What could the organization have done differently during your hiring process?
These HR-oriented questions are within your power to address. However, it’s important that you do try to address them: don’t bother asking these questions if you’re not going to do anything about the answers you get.
Remember, exiting employees are likely to hear about any changes you do (or don’t) make through their friends who still work for your company.
TAKE FEEDBACK WITH A GRAIN OF SALT
Last, but not least, don’t take every interviewer’s feedback as gospel truth. The statement “My manager is a big jerk” could indicate problems with management level staff at your company. But when coming from an employee who has a record of coming in late and clocking out early, for example, it could also indicate that the manager was simply managing and didn’t see eye to eye with the employee.
An exit interview can provide valuable information. But because that information comes from a biased source, don’t just consider those interviews individually. Instead, look for the trends and consistent feedback that emerge across multiple exit interviews. By examining a larger data set, you’ll find more ways to improve your company by building a better culture and taking care of problems proactively.
Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers. She can be reached at EvilHRLady@gmail.com