The Case Against Exit Interviews

Liz, I heard that you’re not a fan of exit interviews for departing employees. I’m shocked. When HR offers you a chance to tell your side of the story, you should take the opportunity, right? Our company takes exit interviews seriously. We use the data to help teams improve and an exit interview is a great time and place for an employee to tell us everything they never told us before.

You’re right! I am not a fan of exit interviews.

People don’t job hunt for fun. Conducting a stealth job search is a stressful project, and a stealth job search is the only kind of job search you can conduct when you’re working full-time (unless you want to tell your manager you’re job-hunting).

Whenever we talk about employment in the US, there’s an elephant in the room. The elephant is a doctrine called Employment at Will. It is the law of the land in all 50 states except Montana where things are slightly different (but not all that much).

Employment at Will says that an employee can be dismissed for no reason.

You don’t have to do a bad job or have too many absences to be fired. You can just be fired one day.

If your manager doesn’t like you or you upset the wrong person, you can lose your job. Employment at Will exists in the US and no other industrialized countries. It is a bad policy because it encourages employers to manage through fear rather than trust. It makes it hard for employees to speak up when they’re being managed badly, even if that lousy management is hurting the company.

If you get fired without cause, you’re eligible for unemployment compensation (maybe). There are lots of other factors that affect your unemployment compensation eligibility. But you can be let go for any reason or no reason, as long as you aren’t terminated for a discriminatory reason.

That’s why stealth job searches even exist. If there were no such thing as Employment at Will, we would not have the term “stealth job search.” We would not have to sneak off to interview with other companies after hours. We wouldn’t have to run out to our cars at lunchtime to talk to recruiters on the phone.

Why do we wage a job search in secret? It’s because of Employment at Will. You could get fired if your boss knew or suspected you were job hunting on the side.

That’s wrong. That’s a bad law. You should keep your job unless you do something wrong or the company has a crisis that requires it to eliminate jobs.

People who hate their jobs are afraid to job hunt, because of Employment at Will.

That’s unethical and bad business.

Ruling through fear is always the wrong choice. Keeping people at their desks because they could fired for the crime of job-hunting is objectively wrong.

It’s immoral, because you are using people for your own ends.

Just the fact that your company reserves the right given to it by Employment at Will – the right to fire people at any moment for no cause, the ultimate weapon in a fear-based manager’s toolkit – makes you ineligible to hear an employee’s concerns.

If you think about it, you have your nerve expecting an employee to give you confidential information — their impressions of their department and their manager. What have you done to prove to employees that you can be trusted with sensitive, confidential info?

An exit interview has two purposes:

  1. To close out a departing employee’s relationship with the employer — by collecting ID badges, sharing COBRA (health plan continuation) information and so on.
  2. In many organizations, an exit interview is also the time when an HR person interviews a departing employee to get their views and feedback on what’s working well and not working so well in the organization. It is typically conveyed to departing employees that their exit interview conversation with HR will remain confidential.

Let’s look at the confidentiality piece of exit interviews first. It’s not true that your exit interview is confidential. If it were true, what would the point of the exit interview be?

If someone comes into HR and spills their guts in an exit interview, HR has to decide what to do with the departing employee’s feedback. If the employee shares information about something dire like sexual harassment, violence, criminal acts or discrimination, HR has to act. Now the conversation is no longer confidential even if confidentiality was promised.

Is that reasonable? Certainly from the employer’s standpoint it is. You have to act when you hear about something awful happening in your organization. From the departing employee’s standpoint, is it good that their story came out, especially tagged to them?

Maybe not. Maybe there was a better way to help the employee or employees affected by the unfortunate things happening in their department. Too bad. Once the employer knows about the problem, they’re going to stop it for liability reasons (and no one could blame them for that).

However, for the same liability reasons they may protest that there’s no problem, only malcontent employees who make up stories — and those employees could be fired themselves.

This is called retaliation. Sadly, it happens every day.

Some HR people tell me that they let departing employees know “Your feedback to me will not be confidential but it will be anonymous.”

This makes no sense. Either you act on what you heard from a departing employee or you don’t.

You can consolidate feedback you heard from several people, but to do so you must either wait until enough employees from a team have left or aggregate information from numerous teams.

Either confidentiality is abandoned (“You say my employees are unhappy? You have it from a good source? Could that be Jason, who quit two weeks ago?”) or your information becomes stale, watered down and less than credible – especially when the “story” aspect of the feedback is dropped out. The story is the one part of most feedback that conveys meaning.

Let’s be honest — if your leaders care what employees think they can ask them. They can walk around and listen to people. It’s not hard. I saw Fortune 500 leaders do it and as a Fortune 500 leader I did it, too. I heard about problems before people felt they had to job search to get away from an abusive manager or whatever drove them out.

If we care about how employees feel and think we have many ways to get that information — and I’m not talking about an annual employee engagement survey, which is more about justifying the existence of HR than acting on employees’ opinions.

We can make our organizations like wheels of swiss cheese with tunnels and communications networks running up, down and through them. It’s easy to do and doesn’t cost much.

You can listen. You are surrounded by your employees. Every manager can listen to their team members and bring you news from the front lines. You can put your own ear to the ground. You can make it so easily to talk about icky and sticky things that employees never hesitate to do so. You can do these things, and if you want to have a healthy workplace you must.

Your problem is not a data collection problem. Employees are dying to tell somebody how they feel. The problem is on our end, as managers. We don’t want to hear what employees have to say. If we did, they’d know it. They’d never stop sharing ideas and impressions — and that would be the ideal state.

Exit interviews are cynical. They put employees at risk of being blackballed or defamed by a manager who wishes the departing ( = troublemaking, ungrateful) employee had kept their mouth shut.

HR offers departing employees an exit interview slot but no protection against getting slimed in the industry or throughout the company.

Exit interviews offer nothing to a departing employee except the vague hope that if you share your concerns with HR, you’ll get them off your chest and it might not come back to haunt you.

Tell your cat about the issues you had on the job. Tell your bearded dragon lizard.

HR doesn’t really want to know or they would have asked for your opinion long before you started job hunting. Using people as informants instead of getting up from your desk and doing your job out among the populace is wrong.

Here is a column that shares six ways to listen to your employees

 

 

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