Are you falling into these exit interview traps?

Exit interviews are a popular tool to keep an eye on employee sentiment. Here are 5 mistakes to avoid.

By David Bradshaw, Chief Executive Officer
24th February, 2022
David is a highly experienced consultant specializing in business strategy, lean operations/automation, and human resources. He holds a Master's degree from the University of Cambridge, UK, and an MBA from Quantic School of Business and Technology.

Exit interviews are an essential HR tool that allows businesses to understand how they can improve the employee experience and reduce attrition. But there are many ways that people can make mistakes with them, and some of them are downright dangerous.

Many organizations conduct exit interviews with employees who are leaving the organization - voluntarily or otherwise. When conducted and interpreted well, they can be a great way for companies to understand what is driving their employees to leave and address any issues that arise. They can provide insight into the needs of different departments and how the organization can improve in order to retain its talent.

Although many thought leaders are now encouraging organizations to move towards so-called "stay interviews", where the tables are turned and the emphasis is on asking employees about why they stay at the organization, the two are not mutually exclusive and serve different purposes.

Unfortunately, exit interviews are easy to get wrong, often leaving key information on the table, or more dangerously, creating a false impression. Cast your mind back to an exit interview you received. Did you give a full and honest answer? Did you feel comfortable with the interviewer? Even if the exiting employee gives a plausible reason for leaving, it is often the case that this is a polite and well-intentioned attempt to not cause any awkwardness, ill-feeling, or reputation damage.

Here is a situation I have encountered many times. An organization, struggling with retention, will review its exit interviews, looking for common themes and opportunities to improve. They will conclude that there is no pattern, employees are leaving for personal reasons outside of the control of the organization, and that there is no actionable information coming from the exit interviews. If your organization is in this position, chances are you've fallen into one or more of the exit interview traps. Here they are:

1. You are asking the wrong questions

Asking thoughtful, open questions in the right way is critical to success. Think carefully about the questions that should be asked, including follow-up questions designed to uncover what's really going on under the surface. Consider what your organization really wants to learn about itself and the employee experience, and draft questions accordingly. Remember 5 Whys? While I'm suggesting you apply this rigorously, it is important to make some effort to get to root causes.

2. You are not picking up on opportunities to delve deeper

Most employees find exit interviews awkward. The reasons for leaving a job are often complex and emotionally provocative. As a consequence, answers tend to be short, factual, and carefully worded. To maximize the value of the exercise, the interviewer should be trained to pick up on opportunities to go off-script and ask follow-on questions if they suspect that the employee is holding something back or is having difficulty opening up.

3. You have the wrong person asking the questions

The dynamic between employee and interviewer is important. Be thoughtful about matching up your exiting employee with a suitable interviewer. There should be a reasonable trust relationship established between the two parties, but they should be independent enough in their roles so as to avoid any hurt feelings or inappropriate sharing of information. One example of a bad match is anyone in the exiting employee's line management structure. If my exit interview was being conducted by my boss or my boss's boss, I would certainly think very carefully about what I thought about the management at the firm.

4. You are leaving it to the last minute

Many employers leave the exit interview to the last day or two of employment. My recommendation is that you don't do this - I would encourage you to arrange the exit interview for as soon as reasonably possible after the employee (or the organization) gives notice. There are two main advantages of holding the exit interview early. The first is that the situation might be salvageable. An employee may have made the decision to leave based on some false assumptions or information - for example, they may be struggling with something that is resolvable. Secondly, I believe that employees are much more likely to take the interview seriously if they haven't been through the detachment process yet. Asking an employee for feedback on the last day of employment when an employee has already checked out and is looking only ahead is likely to result in lack of engagement and lazy responses.

5. You are misinterpreting what your employees are saying

Even if you don't fall into the other traps, be cautious when drawing conclusions from the exit interviews. As human beings, we have a natural tendency towards confirmation bias - which results in us paying more attention to the views of others that support our own. This effect can lead to subconscious denial of the issues that need the most attention. For example, when an employee leaves because they feel that they don't fit in, it is easy to either blame the individual themselves, or just accept that these things do occasionally happen and there is nothing to worry about. Reality check: you may have an issue with cliques or other systemic cultural problems, perhaps the individual didn't receive enough support, or maybe it is time to up your DEIB game.

Another issue to be mindful of here is masking, or taking the response at face value rather than getting under the surface to the underlying cause. An example here would be when an employee leaves because they got an offer elsewhere that they couldn't refuse. I've seen managers interpret this response as being completely unconnected with the firm the employee is leaving. In some cases it might be - but I'd argue that in most cases the employee was unsatisfied with at least some aspects of their role in the first place. Perhaps your compensation needs a market adjustment, or perhaps there are other issues leading to diminished employee engagement and experience.

An exit interview gives a valuable but incomplete picture - it is all too easy to draw the wrong conclusions.