Exit Interview - Canary in a Coalmine

Most executives and entrepreneurs would agree that one of the top three imperatives of any organization, in addition to increasing revenue and profitability, is talent management. For the current knowledge-centric workforce employees form a major portion of the company’s assets and are increasingly responsible for the revenue and profits.

Obviously, and for a good reason, companies focus on hiring and keeping great talent. Therefore, when a worker leaves the company, it is important to find out the reasons for the departure. A great way to understand employee churn is to focus on the exit interview.


This important but often underestimated tool is not a simple and quick process but, rather, a systematic study of corporate performance – warts and all. Exit interviews serve as excellent opportunities to identify problems that lie at the root of the employee turnover and other corporate afflictions.  They might also help us discover and understand problems in other processes that may be hurting revenue and profitability.  According to Executive Coach Alanea Kowalski, “Exit interviews are useful if you take them seriously and not just as another item on the HR Agenda.”  The exit interview can bring you face to face with reality - gaps in organization, leadership, teams, or strategy - and it can certainly help improve talent acquisition, training, and retention.


A vital first step before instituting the exit interview is ensuring total commitment to this undertaking from the most senior leaders and executives in charge of the process. This means that senior managers agree to make themselves vulnerable to some degree. Dave Fisher, who has led large national sales organizations for more than 10 years, wrote to me: “The number one reason an employee leaves voluntarily is that they don't like, respect, and believe in the manager they're working for.  Most managers are afraid of conducting exit interviews or having them conducted by HR because they are often self-condemning.  That said, not having them conducted properly and immediately deprives an organization of the knowledge it needs to improve and to ‘coach the coach’.”


Everyone involved in the process must be committed to understanding what is causing employee churn and be ready to undertake measures to stop it. Program manager Steven Bocker says, “By looking at the end results (of exit interviews) you can reverse- engineer a career and identify events that altered an employee’s career path.” In order to provide value, exit interviews need to be backed by considerable thought, planning, and follow-through, or else they would not yield any worthwhile insight and just be a drain on resources. The process needs to be mapped out from the information-collection phase to results.


In reality, however, exit interviews often merely provide  janitorial services to the final barfing of ex-employees. Exit interviews should only be conducted if you are serious about taking action, in which case they should be a part of a greater review process of the organization.  There should be a systematic method of  extracting, storing, analyzing, and utilizing information about the firm obtained from former employees.  Exit interviews can't be disjointed acts of conversations. Keep in mind too that you cannot take everything the exiting employee says as the holy truth. S/he may be frustrated and cynical and make exaggerated pronouncements. Then there are also employees who would be scared to say anything negative because they don’t want to burn bridges or face any vindictive consequences in the form of negative references. They need to be assured that everything they say would be kept confidential.

That said, having a third party – someone who has the trust of the top leadership as well as past employees –conduct the exit interview is also a good idea. According to Deborah H. Herting, Founder and CEO at The Deborah Group, which develops customized strategies for success for individuals and business organizations, “What is the value of an exit interview when people are hesitant to be honest with feedback? Reassurance is needed that candid feedback will be assessed from a neutral position and utilized to effect positive change with absolutely no professional ramifications to the departing employee.”

Exit interviews done in-house rather than by an outside, neutral entity would be akin to complaining to police about law enforcement excesses.  Beth Carvin, President/CEO at Nobscot Corporation says, “If an employee is leaving because the boss is a jerk, what will they say when the boss asks them why they are leaving?” On the other hand, there’s no point taking exit interviews of employees who have been fired.  


When done well, the exit interviews may reveal just about everything worth knowing – from bad policies to dysfunctional team members.  People leave for a variety of reasons and not simply to get a better job with a better firm.  They may even leave companies that offer the best facilities and compensation because of problems like toxic colleagues and culture, or lack of faith in the firm’s leadership or strategy. By the same token, many employees stay with companies that are not extraordinary in any sense, but because they like their co-workers or they enjoy the work.
Conducted properly, exit interviews can be as revealing as an autopsy.  The past employee is ready to spill her guts and share all that she had to deal with in the past.  Your firm may suffer from one or more diseases and such an in-depth examination would help you diagnose the problem and devise the treatment plan, so to say.  You cannot be just a forensic scientist but also an epidemiologist, and you should understand not only one departing employee, but also all former workers as a group.  Do you have the skills to ask pertinent questions  and find the right answers?   While this process does not require training in "depth research methods" from a postmodernist doctoral program, it does need a pre-planned and deliberate effort.
Finally, it pays to genuinely focus on the exiting employees’ concerns and future plans, because this approach helps them open up and give an honest appraisal of the company. Stephen Holton, Senior Project/Program Manager  who had a memorable exit interview in which his boss congratulated him for getting the excellent job opportunity for which he was leaving the company says, “You rarely forget those who help you in duress or those who truly celebrate your success.  This transition is an opportunity for the company to make that type of a connection”.