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It seems that at every job I have had, there was little expectation to be candid. People seemed to be walking on eggshells, and wouldn't offer an honest opinion.

For example, at my present job, we have exit interviews and nobody mentions anything about the conditions. We have a very high turnover rate, and people are leaving who are not happy, but when they leave, they only say "I got a better opportunity".

What motivates people to be silent, even after they've decided to move on, and what can be done to encourage people to be more forthcoming with their opinions.

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I was going to point out there are so many lies and untruths because you hire people, and people can just be that way, but it sounds like you're specifically asking why you're not getting valuable feedback in an exit interview.

There is no benefit to the person leaving to be candid in the exit interview. If they've been saying there are issues and no-one is listening, why would they expect anyone to listen at the end? And even if they do, it doesn't help them at that point.

So, you need to listen to the people who are still there, who haven't left yet. And listen with an open mind. And listen in a way that people don't fear the consequences of saying something. If there are negative results from giving management the truth, people won't bother. They'll just leave when they can.

If you want candid feedback, you can't wait until the exit interview. That really isn't the place for it - it provides no benefit to the person leaving, and internet advice recommends against it as well.

To get candid feedback, you need an environment where people feel safe bringing up issues. They are not shot down, they suffer no professional setbacks. They are listened to, and if their idea is not feasible, it can be clearly explained why. If the idea is pointing out a valid problem, management is open that the problem is being addressed, and communicates during the process of fixing it.

So:

  • Environment where it is safe to bring up issues (no repercussions)
  • Environment where issues that can't be fixed are clearly explained why, with valid reasons.
  • Environment where issues that can be fixed are clearly communicated during the process of fixing, so it is clear that progress is being made.

You still won't get much information in the exit interview, but since you'll already know and be fixing the issues, you both won't need the exit interview, nor will there be as many.

Note There are people who complain, who have bad ideas, and who won't accept explanations for why they are bad ideas. When Fergus asks again why he can't come to work without a shirt, because he just won't accept the idea that you need to be at least business casual because of meeting with customers, it is valid to tell him something like "This job requires appropriate clothing, which includes a shirt. If you can't find your way to wearing a shirt, then perhaps this job isn't a good fit for you. Are you willing to commit to wearing a shirt from now on, or shall we talk about when your last day will be?" That too is clear communication.

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    You have to do more than just listen. You also have to act on feedback, and make sure people know you are doing something about it. Because they also won't bother complaining if they think it won't change anything. – Seth R Feb 26 at 21:49
  • @SethR I thought I said that. But I'll try to make it more clear, since yes, talk alone is cheap. – thursdaysgeek Feb 27 at 1:32
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    I think the aspect of safety is super important. This is known as "psychological safety". It's a state where people feel enough freedom to express themselves, try on different ideas, make, own and learn from mistakes, and question the way things are in an organization. It's sadly very common for organizations to completely crush psychological safety, humiliate those that don't conform and always expect compliance even if it's superficial. The best one can hope for in a large org is to find a tight-knit workgroup that can protect it's members and provide this kind of safety. – teego1967 Feb 27 at 14:26
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    Sometimes there isn't anything you can do to make people feel safe. They've been burned too many times. Fixing your company isn't enough when the whole economy is actively being unsafe. – aherocalledFrog Feb 27 at 16:06
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    This is an issue that starts at the top. The CEO has to be willing to listen and learn. When the CEO does not listen to the team, then people learn that honesty is the worst thing they can do. Small departments might be able to do something different, but those will be shot down as the manager gets worn out or fired. – David R Feb 28 at 16:34
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People aren't candid because it is frequently societally inappropriate and even when there isn't a societal rule against it, it is often without benefit to the person you want to be candid.

The idea of there being generally just one correct way to answer a question or set of questions is threaded through society. There are a large number of places in our societal contract (differs by culture) where people are expected to give an answer other than the truth for various reasons.

If a 3 year old scribbles on a piece of paper, you are expected to say "good job" no matter how much it looks like it was done by an elephant.

In North American society, "how are you?" is a greeting to which you reply some variation of "fine, how are you?" even if your mother just got diagnosed with cancer. No genuine concern for your well being is being expressed, but you are expected to continue the charade. It is just a greeting.

When bad news is announced, people will offer to help. Few of those offers are sincere, so declining those offers is expected. Plenty of people will get frustrated with you for actually accepting the offer.

In parts of Indian society, you decline a second helping of food the first two times it is offered as part of the culture is to have the host repeatedly ask to demonstrate their sincerity and that you are not a burden.

If there were a function called shouldITellTheTruth(question), there would be about 300 if statements returning the correct answer before you got to the else at the end with the yes.

Workplace examples:

  • You are leaving for some amazing new opportunity and no other reason, even if you are not. Don't want to burn the bridge.

  • You are happy in your job during reviews, even if you are not. Don't want awkwardness while sticking around searching for another job.

  • You are planning to stay long term at your new company, even if you are not.

  • You are passionate about X that the company is doing, even if you are not.

  • You want the job because you enjoy X, and want to work with Y, rather than needing employment or just wanting money.

  • In interviews, your last boss was a great leader, even if he never showed up for work and constantly called you rude names.

Consider this. I can be reasonably candid on here as long as I don't say something that will go viral and is not too outside established norms. I don't have a need to create a positive and optimistic image of myself at all times. I can be cynical. I can say that the world is not sugar and rainbows.

I would answer this question very differently in a company meeting, if I said anything at all (and I probably wouldn't). If you asked this in a company meeting, I would be silent and play on my phone and if pressed, would push the narrative that "people get new opportunities and we have to live with it", even though I would not believe it.

If you want candor, add anonymity to your process. Anything that can be traced to be is going to be filtered through a check about what negative consequences I might experience for saying such a thing.

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  • The examples were greats, thanks! It make me wonder how many time we are honest with other peoples :) – Sebastien DErrico Feb 26 at 22:04
  • @SebastienDErrico I imagine fairly rarely, although the level of deviation from our true opinions might only be small in most cases. – Matthew Gaiser Feb 26 at 22:19
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    I'd say it's a bit of a prisoner's dillema. Being honest is dangerous and risky and only worth it if the other side is willing to do the same. If you're honest and the other is not, you're pretty much hosed. If both sides are honest, it's really powerful. Most people think/learn the risk isn't worth it. – Erik Feb 27 at 9:01
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    +1 for your wide-ranging discussion of candour, not just in the workplace but in wider society, – EleventhDoctor Feb 27 at 9:56
  • I answer how are you negatively as appropriate, people say sorry to hear that and move on to the next question. Sometimes they even ask why.... – jmoreno Feb 27 at 13:02
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People give polite social lies, because polite social lies are considered socially acceptable (they do not impinge on their personal sense of self-worth), and there is no reason why they should be honest.

You can’t change the first, society isn’t going to change so that keeping your negative thoughts to yourself is considered unacceptable because it’s socially beneficial. It keeps the tension down and doesn’t ruin the mood of everyone else.

If you really want an honest exit interview, then you have to pay for it. Offer a large bonus for every item identified which management feels can be addressed. If someone says it’s because the coffee machine is broken for two months, then give them a thousand. If they say they couldn’t stand the constant meetings give them a thousand. If they say it was because the commute is shorter to their new job ignore them.

Tell your managers if they can’t manage to give an exit bonus they don’t get a yearly bonus unless they haven’t had anyone leave.

You’re probably going to dismiss this answer as crazy, which is exactly why people aren’t honest in exit interviews.

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  • This is a very interesting idea. In investment terms, honesty is an uncompensated/poorly compensated risk, especially for a departing employee. This changes that risk assessment substantially. – Matthew Gaiser Feb 27 at 14:39
  • @MatthewGaiser: For departing employees they are leaving and the only benefit is future good will, the very thing they risk by being honest. Worse, the future good will gained has an excellent chance of being from someone that would never be in a position to pay up. If it helps your bosses boss, or someone in a different department entirely, or a future employee in your position—they won’t know you and won’t ever say good things about you, not because they aren’t appreciative of the resulting change, but because they don’t know you. – jmoreno Feb 27 at 17:01
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People generally aren't going to just come out and say "this is making me unhappy and I'll leave if it isn't fixed", because people tend not to want to be known as the person who's unhappy with everything, complains a lot and makes ultimatums. Also, when the company is making decisions about promotions and raises and professional development, they're probably going to focus less on people who made it clear they're not happy with their current situation (which, in the company's opinion, might imply they may leave soon regardless). And they'll probably focus more on those people if/when layoffs roll around.

These problems can be mitigated to some degree by, like mentioned in another answer, making people feel safe to bring up issues and feel like their feedback is actually valued and acted upon.

But what may often happen instead is people ask questions or make requests concerning topics they're unhappy about. If you take the time to speak to them occasionally (in a one-on-one setting), that is.

  • They may ask about promotions, raises, advancement and training if they feel they're not being valued or paid enough.
  • They may ask about what other teams are doing, possibly about working with them and possibly about doing some other things outside the scope of their job if they're unhappy with what they're currently doing.
  • They may even just come out and say, or strongly imply, they dislike certain parts of their job, but generally not in a super serious way.

Of course those aren't clear signals. They may also just be trying to become more of an asset to the company, expand their horizons or generally express frustration / "vent" about the less fun parts that exists in any job.

You should discuss things with them in more detail and ask them questions to try to figure out what's making them unhappy in their current job, if anything.

Cultural problems may be more difficult to pin down, but it may be a bad sign if people refrain from saying good things when asked about the culture in general or about specific people (especially when they often say good things about other topics).

Other ways to find out what people are thinking are to have an anonymous hotline or anonymous surveys (both in terms of rating things on a scale of 1-5 or whatever and giving them the option of writing freetext answers and additional comments). These should actually be anonymous (and, again, people should feel safe to be honest there and there shouldn't be negative repercussions). In some cases you may need to get more details to be able to act on something, but the most you can and should do then is to make a general statement saying you'll appreciate it if the person who said that can reach out to you privately to provide some more details. Or just use it as a signal when looking for broader patterns. You can also read (and act on) reviews from Glassdoor or other external sites.

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  • The problem with anonymous surveys is I have seen people sacked or berated for what they answered in the surveys. In one case within 10 minutes. – Kilisi Feb 27 at 13:52
  • There's no such thing as "anonymous survey". Even if the survey doesn't ask for peoples' name/department, any freetext answer (mentioning some specific situation or person) would reveal at least the department and the team, if not the exact person involved. – Igor G Feb 27 at 21:52
  • @IgorG People will write whatever they feel comfortable writing in an anonymous survey. In my experience they tend to be fairly vague, just gives more of a general idea how happy people are and maybe things like what sorts of perks people would like, with the occasional more serious accusation that's too vague to really even investigate, never mind act on (but may still be useful to know). If they choose to write something which may identify themselves, that's their choice, but it shouldn't really matter if there won't be negative repercussions either way (which is what I'm advocating for). – NotThatGuy Feb 27 at 22:01
  • Not to mention the number of managers that will take an ultimatum as an existential threat and show you the door before you can even finish. – jmoreno Feb 28 at 22:57
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The above answers focus on what's missing - why people arent open, and that exit interviews are too late.

I want to add my own experience in this. It may suggest how to change it.

I spend my work life in small to medium businesses/organisation, not large ones. Say 30 -1000 employee size. I didnt have a sense of status or distance, so I was friendly/collegial with everyone, and by nature I don't have a "fake" work face to put on. So I tend to get what non-fake often gets - more honest and on depth dialogues. Ask someone how works going, or show by your actions you want things better and don't mind rolling up your sleeves to do it and empower people... people notice that and they do respond.

Very early on, I noticed that the people who really knew things were also, every employee in the place. The receptionist and VP might have different perspectives, different slices of the cake, but they do see the cake, and both see different parts of it. Oh yes they do.

With every employee comes a free brain - use it. Your staff, junior especially, know everything that's wrong with the business. Why it demotivates. How it loses customers and profit. What the bottlenecks and inefficiencies are. Who causes friction or uses their status in a way that harms the whole, and how. Your staff smooth over a thousand issues and rough points daily, and management never know 99% of it... and why would they? The higher management above them sets goals in terms of metrics, and those goals don't include a duty on each employee to measurably improve the subjective quality and efficiency of the company's workplace. They often don't want to know things ("Just make it so") or think only their peers have insight. They may play power games, and if they don't, they might anyway, so why risk a job? They usually only want to hear some kinds of criticism, not honest total feedback, and the power dynamic influences even that. The issues were there 3 years ago, last year and now, there's no real sense of a passion and power/determination to fix them.

And that's why so much of what goes on is lip service to the idea of being the best. Because to be the best, you have to work as a team, and every last one of those things reduces your ability to all (receptionists and janitors upward) truly work as one team. Your staff would love the business to thrive and run smoothly, its not their fault if it doesn't, its a management failing. Always, 100%. Because that's managements job, totally: to ensure the quality of workplace and determine how the business works.

My preferred solution, which works a gem: be the change. Be that one manager who is those things, does those things, stands up for their team and wants to free them and empower them to be their best. Be that most unbusinesslike person - a friend - in the workplace (as far as is professional and appropriate anyway). Be someone who can say what has to be, but isn't a dick about it, and makes sure they know you really did think about their concerns and hopes too. Someone who asks casually how it's going, any issues today, and uses that as input to find the problems to fix - which your staff know but lack power to address, but you can do something about. Then come back to them with an update, next time, so they know you did something and where its at - and that if nothing happens its not because they were ignored. Take problems, including problem conduct to your staff, seriously - and any conduct that leaves them less motivated is probably problem conduct. Know their jobs in detail as well as they do, including the problems they face in their jobs. Don't focus only on appraisals for your subordinates - ask them to write upward appraisals for you... and make sure they know its just to help you be better for the team and spot anything you've got the ability to do better yourself, and won't go further without consent (if an issue needs it, you'll ask their permission first), so you'd like honesty. Do things by visiting desks as part of knowing your team, not always by memo.

Do that, spread that ethos, show that example, and you'll never need an exit interview. You'll know every day, anyway.

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  • My preferred solution, which works a gem: be the change. Yes, it works. You will become the complaint box of the company and your team will go through hell for you, but when you act on it outside of the team, forget to be thanked or even be promoted. Ever. – Peter Kämpf Feb 27 at 12:24
  • That might be your experience. Its very far from mine, and I do this consistently. I don't know if the difference is in your culture (different country/region), your company (the employee chooses the employer as much as the other way round), or how you approach it and interact - or even if you do. But I've never had complaints for this, it tends to get me among the highest bonuses, at most employers, which is a fairly definitive way to tell how its seen, staff who self rate as among the happiest in their roles in annual feedback, and in all, plenty good enough feedback to continue myself. – Stilez Feb 27 at 16:59
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For example, at my present job, we have exit interviews and nobody mentions anything about the conditions. We have a very high turnover rate, and people are leaving who are not happy, but when they leave, they only say "I got a better opportunity".

I don't think an exit interview is where you dump out all your problems. It's not a confessional box where you talk about all the problems and how you want them fixed and all that. So I think that's the wrong time to bring up any sort of problems. An exit interview usually consists of three things 1) you turn over your company property, 2) you turn in a transition plan, and 3) you sign any sort of NDA or quick survey. At my exit interview, all I got was a thank you letter and a survey.

Plus no one has to be public about their opinion. Usually what happens is someone turns in their 2 weeks, and if the employer likes them, they may ask them what they could do to keep them around. Perhaps at that time, behind closed doors, they brought up the issues they're having. And perhaps whatever terms can't be met and they decide to part ways.

You have to think a deal is a 2 ways street. If your workplace is underpaying, for example, and suddenly you're able to pay that when you find a new job, how could you trust that person? Would you trust someone who suddenly decided to fix your problems as soon as you tell them you found a new job? Imagine if a painter came to your house, quoted you 5x as much as the next guy and you say, "The other guy paid 5x less than you." And he says, "Well why don't you go to that guy?" And you say, "Okay, see you later." And he goes, "No, no, wait okay I'll do it for that price." Wouldn't you think that person is not exactly trustable and might not do as good of a job if he's that dishonest about something?

Also, keep in mind most people aren't going to try to fix everything wrong. Sometimes you go into a bad situation and there's no way you can fix up every single thing that is wrong about the place. Sometimes you just have to walk away and fight your battles elsewhere.

Ultimately though, I think people take their work too seriously. When you're so involved in your workplace that you have to think about how to fix it or how you should say this and that about it, then I think you're doing it wrong. First off, as soon as you walk out those doors, all your problems become nonsense. No one is going to remember Jimmy from accounting who fixed up some sort of huge gossip problem between Martha and Sam. Instead, I think a lot of people focus in on their personal lives. They have families, children, homes, cars, and other personal hobbies that they enjoy and build up using the money they make. Ultimately, the choice is you should do what is best for yourself and whatever growth you have in your own personal life. Most people aren't going to focus in on what is wrong or how to right their workplace. They just go to work, do their thing, and go home to enjoy a good life.

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What motivates people to be silent, even after they've decided to move on

One possibility not mentioned thus far is that the problems are so big or numerous that people just don't see that they can be fixed at all (variation: problems are inherent to things out of everyone's reach, like CEO's management style or CEO's pet beliefs). Even people who mean well for the company wouldn't waste time talking about something that will stay the way it is no matter what.

We have a very high turnover rate, and people are leaving who are not happy

Start with double checking that new hires are getting exactly what they were promised (or were led to believe). Is it possible that working in the company turns out to be something different than what employees thought it would be?

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I work in very large tech companies (US and European) for 25 years. My main take away is that people hibernate about 70% of their non-business neurons once they cross the door of the company:

  • they will be wondering about that prince from Wakanda who wants to send them 10M, while at home they would just press "delete"
  • they will (kindly) discuss with their team as if these people were mentally deficient or in a kindergarten
  • they will wonder why people do not openly provide feedback when it is kindly asked for

What motivates people to be silent, even after they've decided to move on, and what can be done to encourage people to be more forthcoming with their opinions.

Because there are just a few cases in the history of humanity where telling the truth triggered the reaction "oh yes, you are right" and actually made changes.

People are extra PC in the workplace because this is not the best place to express their extreme points of view. This includes points of view about the CEO or how the company is running. People were not promoted for that.

I work in an extraordinary company. I really love it and the company behaviour was always excellent, even when there was no reason to do so. They showed loyalty, so I am loyal as well. This includes providing harsh feedback.

It does not help much because it means change, adaptation, saying that what is being done is wrong, etc. Since I want the company to succeed I keep on providing this harsh feedback.

But I am an employee, who wants to work in that company. Why would someone on the exit track provide it? To burn some bridges?

If you want people to speak up, you must show that what they are saying when employed is addressed. This does not mean "implemented". You can say "you cant X but we will not do that because of Y".

Exit interview are a complete loss of time.

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  • You mean Nigeria? Wakanda isn’t having any trouble their super science and magic king cannot resolve. – jmoreno Feb 28 at 1:40
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I may be the person you are looking for. For all the jobs I left so far, I had an exit interview of about 30 minutes to an hour of intense talking, quite interesting for both sides imho (okay, for one job the official exit interview with an HR person I've never met was below 10 min bit I had a separate feedback-heavy "debriefing" with my more direct boss that took a around half an hour, was also my first job, so not much perspective to give anyway). Assuming the company is in good shape, I could go back to all of them and are on good terms with the interview partners (except that HR person I forgot as soon as I left). I typically always give honest feedback in exit interviews. Or other forms of feedback. BUT: Honest could also be "Sorry, nothing to comment on", because I don't want to. The amount,clarity and directness of any such feedback and how open I am with topics that are more personal depends on

  • a) how much I am invested in the company
  • b) how much I trust that the company has enough force for good left in it that my feedback can do any good
  • c) how much I trust the interviewer to be open to honest feedback, overcome their potential emotional negative reaction or be a jackass and take any negative feedback personal.

The higher your turnover rate, the more likely all three of those points are very low. Thus even people who are open to give feedback will not want to, because they have lost all investment and don't see any sense in giving feedback to a bad employer that fucked them (in their mind) over already.

I consider many answers here written from a short-sighted and egoistical point of view by looking only at the short-term personal benefit. To me feedback and also exit interviews can play a vital role to make the workplace better for everyone potentially including myself in the long run. If I give no feedback there is no chance for the company to learn anything. If I do there is a chance someone learns and tries to change for the better. Perhaps they fail at that company but do it better at the next and increase the overall happiness there a bit. And perhaps we meet again at either such company. Like with other community owned goods, workplace atmosphere is a community effort that can only improve if everyone contributes their share. That being said, obviously there is a risk involved in handing out candid feedback. Especially if you are not versed in reading your conversation partner and knowing what kind of language they can digest and what kind of language will trigger the wrong emotional buttons. So if there is no hope left or I know the interviewer doesn't care or is a hateful person anyway, then I also don't give any or no particularly insightful feedback.

What motivates people to be silent, even after they've decided to move on, and what can be done to encourage people to be more forthcoming with their opinions.

You got it backwards. If they have decided to move on it's more likely they are silent because they have no personal benefit anymore. This part many answers get explicitly or implicitly right. If you want feedback and improve your company, start as soon as people start and haven't mentally moved on yet! Ask your new arrivals, after a few weeks what feels off to them. They might not have the deepest insights, but they might still be invested to make this company their home!

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