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Don’t Slam the Door on Exit Interviews

Performance reviews and exit interviews might seem like very different animals but they share an important quality: both are opportunities to gather essential information for the future success of our people and our organizations.
Performance reviews accomplish this when managers ask the right questions—e.g., how their reports feel about their own contributions, their interactions with coworkers, and the growth and development the company is providing. (If you’re interested, you can read more on this topic in past posts, “The Art of Effective Performance Reviews,” and “Meeting Employees’ Needs: Culture Management, Engagement, and Preventable Turnover.”)

Exit interviews, on the other hand, require similar but specialized questions—questions that are appropriate to the fact that an individual is leaving the organization. This type of questioning can pose a significant challenge due to the unique dynamics and emotions involved. For instance, the information we receive can depend heavily on whether or not employees are leaving on good terms, their willingness to share honest opinions (i.e., fear of burning bridges), the specific reasons behind their exit, and the like. How the interviewer goes about her or his work makes all the difference.
The challenges and benefits of exit interviews are highlighted by an article on, “You Need to Stop Going Through the Motions on Exit Interviews,” and by another on the StaffMasters website, “The Importance of an Exit Interview.”
In the article, HR Acuity CEO Deborah Muller urges us to remember that the biggest reason exit interviews end up being ineffective is that most HR people who conduct them don’t really know what they’re doing. “An untrained interviewer might not know how to configure the interview in order to make it relevant to the employee’s role, level and functional area,” she writes. That’s why trained professionals and specialized technology are so crucial to maximizing the value of exit interviews. Muller points out that many companies are outsourcing their exit interviews or training their HR teams to conduct these interviews properly. Others are using secure links to interview modules that enable departing employees to answer questions in relative anonymity (a key to getting honest feedback).
The StaffMasters post offers interviewers a list of helpful questions that range from the basic (What made you decide to leave the company? and What did you find most/least satisfying about working here?) to the complex and potentially touchy (How would you rate the level of support you received to perform your job duties? and What qualities do you think a person should have to succeed in this organization?). The post encourages employers to be consistent in the questions they ask of exiting employees, to maintain an objective listening attitude, and to document all responses so that the feedback can be leveraged to the organization’s benefit.
Interestingly, Jeffrey Sharlach wrote about a different kind of issue in his recent Huffington Post piece, “Are You Learning Too Much at Exit Interviews?” Sharlach is CEO of the international communications firm, JeffreyGroup, and has taught in the MBA Management Communication program at the NYU Stern School of Business. He noted that many organizations only learn about crucial employee experiences and opinions during exit interviews rather than during regular performance reviews when the information could do far greater good. Sharlach remedied this situation at his own organization by retooling the performance review process, making it more of a two-way communication experience.
“We were amazed at what we started to learn from our staff once given the opportunity to talk about themselves,” Sharlach writes. “We began to treat each review session as an interview with a new employee, learning more about the friction points in their current conditions and their goals for future growth.”
Performance reviews and exit interviews may indeed be different animals but the two share a connection that shouldn’t be overlooked. And, as the articles referenced above remind us, both performance reviews and exit interviews can be powerful tools for improving the performance of our people and our companies.
We just need to conduct them properly.
Connect with the individuals and sources highlighted in this post by clicking the links below: