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I read everywhere "Don't be honest about your real leaving reasons, the company won't change or they'll just blame you anyway!".

But if it is that way, why do companies even have exit interviews? Why spend resources on them if they aren't interested in learning what wasn't working well for me?

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Just a thought, but aren't they one final messed-up power dynamic to step on the about-to-be-former employee? They're given a fake opportunity to say what they really think about why they're leaving and so on, but know it's in their best interest (not burning bridges) to be vague. – R.. Jan 17 at 3:01

12 Answers 12

up vote 125 down vote
+50

Frankly, I think that in most cases, exit interviews are a self-delusional process.

When management creates an exit interview process, they are thinking, "We will find out why employees are quitting. When someone is leaving, he presumably has no reason to fear any sort of retribution -- obviously he can't be fired or given undesirable assignments or whatever, as he's already quit -- so he has no reason to not be honest. So we can learn what is really happening there in the trenches, and we can fix problems."

But upper management is human just like all the rest of us, and tend to justify themselves. So what REALLY happens very often is that whatever complaints about the company these departing employees express, management concludes that the employee just doesn't understand the totally valid reasons behind company policy, and so dismisses the complaint. Like, an employee says he quit because the people who get promotions are not the best qualified but those most adept at office politics. And so the boss says, "Oh, he just has sour grapes because he didn't get the promotion he wanted, I'm sure the person his boss did promote really was the best qualified."

It reminds me: I used to work for a company where every year we had to fill out a self-evaluation form that was supposedly part of determining our annual raise. One of the questions asked if there was any company policy or procedure that we thought should be changed. (Not the same as an exit interview but in the same direction.) The first couple of years I left this blank. My third year there I wrote that procedures for arranging business travel were unnecessarily complex and I suggested a couple of simplifications. My boss wrote that he had explained to me why current policies were necessary. He hadn't explained anything to me, but I got the message that nothing was going to change. A year or two later I suggested some other policy change, I forget what now, and -- I had a different boss then -- my boss returned the form to me and told me that I should prepare a new form leaving this blank because upper management didn't like to be told that company policies were misguided. When that boss left the company I was assigned to clean out his files, and I came across a memo he had written about another employee (I probably should not have seen memos related to personnel matters, but whatever), that this employee had complained that he thought some people were given preferential treatment, and so the boss and the boss's boss "counseled" him on how the company was completely fair. Apparently after a few hours of browbeating ... I mean counseling ... he said "I probably shouldn't have written that", which management took to mean that he now realized how wrong he was.

And I thought, Why does the company ask the question, if the only acceptable answer is "no, I have no suggestions because company policies are the most perfect that anyone could possibly imagine", and any other answer gets you into trouble? Once they've browbeaten all employees into keeping any suggestions to themselves, do they then congratulate themselves on how happy all the employees are?

And that was a good company to work for, I was basically happy there and stayed for 12 years.

Upper management THINKS that they want to get feedback from the people in the trenches. It makes sense to want to know whether morale is high or low, and why. But in reality, for most managers, if somebody below them tells them that they're making a mistake, their immediate response is to get defensive and explain why what they're doing is, in fact, a good idea. If you don't agree it's a good idea, the problem is that you don't understand.

Hey, we're all like this. It's very difficult for people to admit mistakes. Doubly so when they come from people "below" you.

Oh, I'm sure there are some companies that take employee suggestions and exit interviews seriously, and that really take action based on employee's comments and complaints. But wow, I'm hard pressed to think of one that I've worked for. :-)

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"Hey, we're all like this. It's very difficult for people to admit mistakes. Doubly so when they come from people "below" you." Yes, we're like this, but management, and upper management in particular, is more like this. – user1071847 Jan 18 at 13:52

Exit interviews serve several purposes, but not necessarily the ones that employees think. First they serve as a good place to make sure that all the things that need to turned in (laptops, phones, security badges) are turned in and that all exit processes have been taken care of.

Next they serve to help identify trends over time. There are a couple of things people are likely to tell them when leaving which might over time result in rethinking some corporate policies.

The most common of those is salary. Exit interviews often serve as a rather informal salary survey. If the last ten employees to leave had significant salary increases, this is cause for concern. This may affect the starting salaries of new employees although current employees are not as likely to see major changes from this.

It could also highlight a problem with a major benefits change. If they changed health insurance policies and ten people left shortly after and all of them mentioned that they were unhappy with the new policy, then HR might have the justification to get the company to spend extra the next year when they renegotiate with the health insurance provider. Again, the employees might not see this as related in any way to exit interviews as this type of thing happens on an annual basis.

The thing to remember is that the information they are going to act on is the information that supports a change that HR might have been unable to sell to senior management in the past. It is not likely to affect policies that no one in management is interested in changing, and unless the whole staff quits and cites the same manager, it is almost never going to get a bad manager replaced - unless HR was already looking for a justification to replace him.

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Exit interviews don't benefit the company. It benefits HR and that's about it.

Conducted at the wrong time...

When the employee has one foot out the door, they are already mentally/emotionally disengaged from the company.

The correct time is often, no less than once a quarter.

...with the wrong questions...

What are typical exit interview questions? Let's check the Big Book Of Exit Interview Questions:

  • why are you leaving?
  • what could be improved?
  • how would you rate (list of meaningless terms)?

Contrast with these questions:

  • Do you have everything you need (equipment, knowledge, authority) to do your job?
  • Is your work sufficiently challenging and meaningful? If not, what would need to change to make it so?
  • If you could think of one or two things that any other company could offer you that would make you seriously consider working for them, what would they be?

...asked by the wrong people

HR is the wrong department to ask these questions. They don't understand your job. They don't understand your work. They don't understand your motivation.

Who is the right department? That would be your boss or their boss; someone who is over your group and who can understand the work you do.


So why do them?

Because it is a function that HR can point out to their management (COO, CFO, whatever) and say, "see, we're providing this service." The more they do, the more they're worth! This justifies their bigger bonuses and larger teams.

It is busy-work, nothing more.

Unfortunately, all companies feel they must do it because their competitors do it, that's the way it has always been done, and there must be a good reason for doing it or no one would do it, right?

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Why are you leaving IS the most important question. The application I wrote for my company has about 20 possible employee answers. Most often it is money/better pay. This can help trigger pay raises or at least looking into higher wages for that job role. Not sure your background in employee data but all of these are useful, you just have to know how to use them right and the degree of accuracy dependent on who is asking or entering them into the system. – blankip Jan 19 at 15:31
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@blankip I disagree, for two reasons: 1) Since it is much more expensive and disruptive to replace an employee, asking them why they would want to leave when they are on their way out is the wrong time to ask and is extremely short-sighted and stupid, and 2) There is no incentive for a soon-to-be-ex-employee to answer (or answer honestly), as opposed to an employee who is still committed to the company. See my third bullet point on the better questions. – BryanH Jan 20 at 17:06
    
@blankip Most often it is money/better pay. - actual evidence contradicts this assertion. – BryanH Jan 20 at 17:15
    
No it isn't short-sighted. If that is the only thing you are doing it is short-sighted, more downright dumb. But exit interviews are highly effective if admined right. The survey questions you are mentioning are really poor - well they are good in theory but they just never get honestly answered by an employee - I have made survey systems for a living and we throw one of these types at the end of our surveys hopinng someone will bite... but they are useless. Employees generally will never put those types of answers down in writing as the answer ... cont. – blankip Jan 20 at 18:33
    
may show flaws in coworkers or the company or they could come off as a complainer. You have more of the "happy" answer because it is what we should all strive for but is not practical. The fact is people walking out the door are much more apt to speak their mind - if you have data showing otherwise it is blatantly wrong for a large multinational - as we get great exit data. Also we would never have HR do exit interviews. They are there to monitor and nothing else. We don't even want them talking to manager before interviews. – blankip Jan 20 at 18:38
up vote 14 down vote
+100

The exit interview is often "skipped" at most places if you have done everything else on the manager's exit checklist - turned everything in, filled out what you need to, and so on.

What if the exit interview happens?

It is only useful if the person leaving is honest and if the person giving the interviews gives a crap about why the person is leaving.

Not only must the person give a crap but they must be willing to take criticism and possibly push that criticism up the ladder.

I have done exit interviews on both sides and I have built apps for current company to store that data. Exit interviews are done by sometimes just HR, sometimes just the manager, sometimes the manager and the manager's manager. I have found that the best results is the employee, manager, and a non-affiliated HR rep. At a big company an HR rep in another region or at a small company a paid mediator.

If a company truly cares they need both sides and one unbiased side. I found that in my app most people were deleting information or not entering info, that we had found source emails for. So it was apparent that managers and HR reps or just one of the two were trying to underplay anything that criticized their interaction with the employee.

At the same time you shouldn't just believe everything an employee says. However we have found that statistics helps reveal who you can/should believe. We have found that people with an average or good recent performance review were more likely telling the truth (the exit interview process has gone through some major scrutiny at my company). Also if an employee has been with the company 5 years or more and has had a good performance review track record (even with a poor current review) they were more likely truthful. And I am sure the more years the better chance for telling the truth but we don't have enough data for that.

How should you handle it?

BE HONEST! Seriously. Don't be mean. Don't take stabs at people. But be honest. First if you aren't honest about everything the one thing you aren't honest about might wipe out everything else you say. Second think about the current employees and how you might be able to improve their lives. Third and I feel is most important - the company will probably be around for longer than the problem that caused you to leave. If nobody says anything about the problem how can you expect it to change. If it doesn't change then you have one less place that you would work at in your area.

I will add too that if you have some tenure at a company, send your exit interview comments up the ladder to as far as you feel is necessary. I have seen cancers removed from a company based on exit interviews - maybe not solely but started the ball rolling.

If you have been with a company for 6 months your comments might not have much clout but if you were a valued employee and left for a reason other than got a huge promotion and pay raise - I would be honest on exit interview. If nothing else you can get feedback on your performance and take that with you to next job.

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My experience has been unlike any of the answers so far. My exit interview resulted in significant changes.

Broadly, the CEO was not happy with the department I worked in, and used my leaving as a chance to talk to someone in that department in a way that was likely to get both honest answers, and not cause too many problems if it went wrong. The fact that he acted on his suspicions after talking to me is not necessarily causal, but it seems very likely.

I think the key difference is that this was a small company (about 50 employees) and there was only three layers - my manager reported directly to the CEO who was in regular contact with the owners.


I worked at one company for about 18 months as a salaried programmer. When it became obvious that the low salary I started on wasn't going to change I started looking at other jobs to get a feel for the market. Once I had that, I went to my boss and said "I can get 30% more elsewhere, I'd like a raise" and was refused. A couple of months later I told my manager I was going to an interview and quit shortly afterwards.

My exit interview was with the CEO, in his office, just after I'd given notice. He was very keen to find out what was going on, because the sequence he was aware of was:

  1. Mσᶎ's manager tells him "he wants a 30% pay rise"
  2. CEO says "that's a very large increase, I need more information"
  3. a week later Mσᶎ quits

Initially he wanted to know my side of the story, because his side didn't make sense - he thought we had just started a negotiation, not just ended one. He was explicitly open to me criticising my manager. We talked for an hour about how my area of the company worked, some of the problems he observed, what he wanted to do with the company and what I though he should do to fix the problems I could see. I agreed that getting someone from outside to review things was an excellent idea.

A couple of months later I got an email from my former manager indicating that he would not act as a referee because I'd got him made redundant. The company had brought in a friend of the CEO who worked in IT, he'd gone through everything asking hard questions, and discussed it all with the CEO. Then they reorganised the way they did that whole area of operations and completely changed their development team.

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Thinking about this, it's also good to make sure that as much as possible what you'd want to say in an exit interview gets said while you still work there. It's IMO better to leave saying "I told you this needed to change, it didn't, so I'm going". – Móż Jan 17 at 23:27

What benefit does the company have from arranging exit interviews?

This is a Choose Your Adventure Answer, depending on what perspective you want.

I expect most people will fall a lot more into the "cynically" category.

Cynically

Any company/management that would actually change given the result of an exit interview probably would have been a place people felt comfortable discussing and attempting to fix their concerns prior to leaving. If so, an exit interview is meaningless because either 1) the concerns are already discussed prior to leaving or 2) the concerns are not resolvable (ie you want a small company and your company has 100,000 employees).

If they aren't a company that would change, then you have nothing to gain by giving criticism and everything to lose.

Realistically

Most employees won't say anything meaningful (like you say). However, if even a small percentage give useful information that leads to a change causing a single future employee to stay instead of leave, it can be beneficial.

Keep in mind that hiring is expensive and even if 20 exit interviews only give you enough information to influence 1 future employee from leaving, that still might be financially beneficial.

Idealistically

Employees will give their concerns. Management can then have a better understanding of what improvements can fix the working environment.

Pretty much no one believes this perspective, except perhaps HR.

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One purpose of exit interviews that is often overlooked is the requirement for companies to keep employees who are "leaving the fold" apprised of benefits changes and continuation of benefits.

Just because a company may or may not be interested in your commentary on the way out doesn't necessarily mean that they don't have valuable information to provide to you on your way out. Just like an entry interview, an exit interview is a time for you to ask your questions of the HR department regarding the cessation of benefits, transition of retirement assets, vesting in pensions, unemployment resources, disposition of company accounts, etc.

In many cases some of these will be moot. Maybe you didn't have a company credit card to which you might receive a statement 3 months after your leave date. Maybe you will be asked to do contract work. Perhaps health benefits are applied in such a way that yours will not expire until the following month end of your leave date rather than on the leave date. These are things that they will want to (and may be required to) communicate to you.

The exit interview is not a time to air grievances but to settle all of the questions that may need to be resolved as you depart the company.

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The last company I had an exit interview with did it 2 working days after I handed in my notice (so almost 4 weeks before I left). The 2 people doing it were a senior HR bod and my manager (whose complete lack of people skills was what had pushed me into leaving without a job to go to).

No real interest was shown in why I was leaving, and having that manager there seemed designed to prevent such feedback. There was no other info given (such as loss of benefits, effects on pensions, future responsibilities, etc), nor any need at that stage to hand in ID badges, laptops, etc.

It appeared to be a box ticking exercise along the lines of 'look how much we care about employees, we have exit interviews'.

As such I would suggest it depends on what the company wants from the exit interview.

If carried out fairly and is trusted by those who are leaving I can see it will return useful feedback.

If the level of trust is missing then feedback is likely to be suppressed (the above answers where people worry about saying anything are a symptom of a lack of trust). Some useful feedback might over many interviews if trends are looked at.

If the exit interview is intimidating then there will be no useful feedback to the company (and this is possibly counter productive by giving the impression that the status quo is fine).

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Exit interviews are not always about making a global corporate change. Sometimes they are about keeping the company on good terms with the employee, other times they are used to build trends about managers.

There is a difference if the person is leaving on good or bad terms, and if bad, why.

An employee leaving on good terms is oftentimes presented with a "we're so sad to see you go" and those employees often offer their perspectives, but they keep it positive and honest (e.g. my new job is closer to home, I can work remotely, the pay is twice as much, etc). So, the exit interview is not a waste - it keeps the company on good terms with the employee (they listened) and the employee on good terms with the company.

With angry employees, there are two types: those that have suffered under horrific managers and have had enough of it and those that think that the whole company is messed up and have "advice" for the company.

In the former case, HR will try to coax the reason out - people actually do drop hints here or there even when they are trying to not burn bridges. These hints that can be combined to form a trend over time and are valuable.

Additionally, most people in these cases are dying to vent their anger, but do not want to burn bridges. If HR can earn the trust, they may actually get a good picture of what is happening. If a particular manager has high turnover, HR may ask explicit questions about that manager to get people to talk more openly. In these cases, there is still value to the company and a well trained HR person who is delicate and tactful can get a few golden nuggets here or there - and once in a great while - the whole story.

However, in the latter case - where the person thinks the whole organization is messed up, there really isn't any value to the interview for either side. The person and the organization are simply not match.

Finally, all interviews still have value in that they are needed for all of the exit paperwork exercises and "next steps" info sessions (i.e. COBRA coverage, final paycheck delivery date, etc).

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I actually organised my own exit interview, writing a mail to say that since I knew I would leave the company, I started thinking more critical about the company and was convinced this lead me to some insights that could help the company.

This lead to a meeting in which I explained they had hired me for €500 more than I expected, but never offered me the opportunities I was looking for because I was too expensive to do this in a junior roll for some time. If they had paid me less and given me these opportunities, I would have had a great career with them.

Finally I advised them to ask for the motivation of a senior candidate, even if they already know they want to hire him.

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It may be a minor point, but an exit interview can help to clarify whether there are any outstanding questions about intellectual property that need to be resolved.

As an example, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit recently decided a case in which an employee of SRI (now owned by Google) left the company with a patentable invention in his head, then went on to another company which patented the invention and sued Google.

You can imagine that SRI would have been much happier to catch this breach of contract and get the patent in its own name, and maybe an exit interview would have achieved that ("Do you have any patentable inventions that you should tell us about before you leave?").

The Federal Circuit was not pleased by SRI's failure to conduct an exit interview:

Google failed to show that SRI was blamelessly ignorant of [the employee]’s alleged breach of contract. [...] Despite the opportunities for SRI to have inquired about [the employee]’s departure and his new venture—the obvious one being an exit interview, [...] the record is critically deficient on the minimum quantum of evidence necessary to show that SRI did anything to protect its interests.

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The only way an exit interview is going to change anything in a company is if it's done with someone much farther up the food chain than you were.. Your immediate boss, if he's intuitive, already knows why you're leaving, and if he's a blockhead, is useless to talk to.
Exit interviews can certainly be effective, but you need the right people in the right places to make it happen.

This begs the question 'Whats in it for you'... Are your answers going to affect any potential future references you might want from this company?

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Keep in mind: I asked this question from an employer point of view. So addressing it as if I were the employee (what I'm but doesn't matter) isn't addressing the OP. – Zaibis Jan 16 at 9:21

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