Why Exit Interviews Make Sense

By Dana Borowka, MA

Recently a strange occurrence got me thinking. On a personal note, I love to sail. After being members of a boat club for over ten years, my wife Ellen and I decided to move to another club. When we informed the club we were leaving they were highly efficient in deactivating our gate codes and privileges. No surprise there.

But it was what they did not do that surprised us. No one asked us why we were leaving. In talking to members at the new club as to why they didn’t join our old club we discovered there was a common complaint and it had nothing to do with boats: they did not like the food at the club.

This organization is needlessly losing customers over something that could be fixed. If only they had a process of conducting exit interviews.

For many a business, the exit interview has fallen out of favor. But in April 2016 the Harvard Business Review published an article singing the praises of exit interviews titled “Making Exit Interviews Count” by Everett Spain of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Boris Groysberg of the Harvard Business School.

The authors made their case in the article’s opening abstract:

An international financial services company hired a midlevel manager to oversee a department of 17 employees. A year later only eight remained: Four had resigned and five had transferred. To understand what led to the exodus, an executive looked at the exit interviews of the four employees who had resigned and discovered that they had all told the same story: The manager lacked critical leadership skills, such as showing appreciation, engendering commitment, and communicating vision and strategy. More important, the interviews suggested a deeper, systemic problem: The organization was promoting managers on the basis of technical rather than managerial skill. The executive committee adjusted the company’s promotion process accordingly.

“In today’s knowledge economy, skilled employees are the asset that drives organizational success,” state Spain and Groysberg. “Thus companies must learn from them—why they stay, why they leave, and how the organization needs to change. A thoughtful exit-interview process can create a constant flow of feedback on all three fronts.”

Why Some Experts Are Cool to Exit Interviews

“I am not a fan of exit interviews,” says Beth Smith, president of A-list Interviews and the author of Why Can’t I Hire Good People: Lessons on How to Hire Better. “I think it is a matter of too little too late.”

A horrible hiring mistake led Smith to create a company and write a book to help improve hiring results. Here is her take on the drawbacks of exit interviews:

Exit interviews are specifically designed for the employer. They do not help the exiting employee at all, because the exiting employee usually needs a reference from the company they are leaving. Telling the truth about the company doesn’t help the employee get that reference, and in certain circumstances, the information gleaned from the interview could be used against them. In addition, if there is negative feedback given, it is sometimes dismissed by the interviewer. “Well, that employee is just mad, so their feedback isn’t accurate.” My belief is that if an employee is leaving the company, they have attempted to tell someone in the company why. Whether it is a review, a conversation or a complaint, most employees don’t just up and leave without some sort of a notification.

Smith’s work is about interviewing right when hiring (something I agree with and advocate should be supported with proper in-depth workstyle and personality testing). Understandably, her coolness toward exit interviews echoes the view of many in business.

Smith’s belief is that if an employee is leaving the company, they have already attempted to tell someone in the company why. Who wasn’t listening to the employee when they were there?

Taking a Fresh Look at Exit Interviews

True, exit interviews have their shortcomings; however, in my opinion, it is a miscalculation to not conduct exit interviews because of the inherent faults. The research of Spain and Groysberg detailed in the Harvard Business Review supports this:

Though we are unaware of research showing that exit interviews reduce turnover, we do know that engaged and appreciated employees are more likely to contribute and less likely to leave. If done well, an exit interview—whether it be a face-to-face conversation, a questionnaire, a survey, or some combination of those methods—can catalyze leaders’ listening skills, reveal what does or doesn’t work inside the organization, highlight hidden challenges and opportunities, and generate essential competitive intelligence.

Other HR experts advocate a return to exit interviews—if they are done right.

“If an organization is a revolving door and it doesn’t care why, then exit interviews are a waste of their time and money,” says Claudia Williams, former associate general counsel, Global HR & Litigation, for The Hershey Company. “Most organizations, though, want to know why people are leaving and going to their competitors or elsewhere, especially when the attraction and retention of great people is a top, if not the top, concern for CEOs in the U.S. and globally.”

Williams, founder of a consulting company called The Human Zone and the author of the upcoming book Frientorship, argues an exit interview gives the employer a chance to get raw, candid feedback on what it does well and what it needs to improve – what’s keeping employees there and what’s causing them to leave.

“Time and again I’ve seen leaders surprised by the results of an exit interview, which means they don’t have their fingers on the real pulse of the organization,” says Williams. “An employer might be able to stop a great employee from leaving if it knows the real reasons behind the employee’s decision.”

The Value of Exit Interviews

“I valued and conducted exit interviews often in the army, individually and through the Army’s initiatives enterprise wide,” says Brigadier General Jeffrey Foley, U.S. Army (retired). “In the army, I often conducted exit interviews when people were transferring out to other army organizations when their tour of duty was up.”

“I valued and encouraged the conducting of exit interviews in the army, individually and through the initiatives sponsored by the army enterprise wide,” says Brigadier General Jeffrey Foley, U.S. Army (retired). “In the army, we often conducted exit interviews when people were simply transferring out to other army organizations when their tour of duty was up.”

Foley, who now runs a leadership consulting practice named Loral Mountain Solutions and is the coauthor of the book Rules and Tools for Leaders, offers his views on the four major benefits of exit interviews:

1. You may learn the real truths about your organization. You will likely learn what you may know or should know about typical challenges like money, opportunities for growth, shortfall of benefits, etc. You may also learn more profound truths like distrust of supervisor, harassment, illegal or unethical conduct that people were reluctant to report for whatever reason.
2. You set a great example for the entire organization that the leadership cares. The word will get out that the losing organization leaders cared enough to at least ask. If there is a standard practice of exit interviews and things changed in the organization for the better as a result of what was learned, there can be great benefit to the organization.
3. You may learn insights into your competition. Great information can be learned about what the competition is doing or offering that might affect your organization.
4. You can learn how to help those departing be successful. For the good people departing, it offers an opportunity for the losing organization’s leadership to help the person be successful in the next chapter of their lives. This support can be provided by letters of recommendation, references, or something unique based on an extraordinary event that caused the departure, such as serious sickness or tragedy that occurred that may have been previously unknown.

Williams offers a final warning:

“But proceed with caution,” she says. “Employers have to be ready and willing to act upon the information they receive, both to harness their strengths and to fix what’s broken (which sometimes means a workplace investigation into allegations of individual or corporate misconduct). Otherwise, the exit interview is a bunch of meaningless words.”

Permission is needed from Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC to reproduce any portion provided in this article. © 2020

Dana Borowka, MA, CEO of Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC and his organization constantly remain focused on their mission statement – “To bring effective insight to your organization”. They do this through the use of in-depth work style assessments to raise the hiring bar so companies select the right people to reduce hiring and management errors. LCS can test in 19 different languages, provide domestic and international interpersonal coaching and offer a variety of workshops – team building, interpersonal communication and stress management. Dana has over 25 years of business consulting experience and is a nationally renowned speaker, radio and TV personality on many topics. He is the co-author of the books, “Cracking the Personality Code”, “Cracking the Business Code” and “Cracking the High-Performance Team Code”.  To order the books, please visit www.lighthouseconsulting.com.

If you would like additional information on this topic or others, please contact your Human Resources department or Lighthouse Consulting Services LLC, Santa Monica, CA, (310) 453-6556, dana@lighthouseconsulting.com & our website: www.lighthouseconsulting.com.

Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC provides a variety of services, including in-depth work style assessments for new hires & staff development. LCS can test in 19 different languages, provide domestic and international interpersonal coaching, skills testing and offer a variety of workshops – team building, interpersonal communication and stress management.

Our Sino-Am Leadership Program helps executives excel when stationed outside their home country. American managers in Asia and Asian managers in America face considerable business, personal, and leadership challenges because of the cultural differences. This unique program provides personal, one-on-one coaching. For more information visit, https://lighthouseconsulting.com/performance-management/talent-development/sino-american-management-style/.