A graceful departure: Do exit interviews actually work?

By Ray O'Reilly

Exit interviews are ‘in', but how trustworthy are they in today's tough market? Is it like forced confession or can it ensure knowledge transfer?

Thursday 15 August 2013

Contracts are harder to come by so companies are downsizing like they've got a wasting disease in a desperate attempt to stay afloat. In their haste to save the company's arse – and often their own – managers are falling into the ‘restructuring trap' … not securing knowledge transfer and not learning from their mistakes.

Sure, exit interviews come highly recommended to staunch the knowledge loss, but how reliable are they when you consider the person being interviewed has just been told to pack his bags? Isn't it like a forced confession? Don't psychologists say our instinct is to mentally burn what we leave to justify our onward journey? Surely that is why we have evolved so well.

And what does a company's failure to implement exit interviews say about its attitude to staff… or indeed its overall competence? Interviewing a departing colleague makes good sense. You can learn what works and what doesn't in the company; and perhaps more to the point who works well and who doesn't. Because the chances are that someone left behind will have to pick up the of the departing colleague – unless of course they really were useless or cruising.

But even then you can learn something: how did they manage to keep under the radar, and does this mask a systemic problem which could explain the drop-off in business? Is their supervisor really on the ball? Does management understand how to win business in tougher economic climes?

There are reasons why companies baulk at looking too closely in the mirror. They could argue the cost of exit interviews during a period of ‘restructuring' can't be justified. But this rationalisation most likely masks a deeper problem – failing to implement robust human resource management practices (hiring, training and firing) – which may also reflect on the ‘no-one is indispensable' corporate .

Companies, or indeed their agents (the managers) are also shy about being exposed to criticism, especially during times when it seems almost everyone is under scrutiny. Like this, the ‘honest feedback' may shine a light on some poor decision-making made at all levels of the company. The default reaction: “Let's not look too closely, shall we?” or “Let's blame this person because they've already gone, and leave it at that!”

But this attitude misses the point of restructuring, and failure to implement exit interviews misses an even more valuable opportunity not only to learn something new about the company to improve its performance, but also the chance to send out ‘peaceful emissaries' to the business world. Retrenched or fired staff members may have unflattering things to say about their previous employer. An exit interview gives the employee an opportunity to air their views, to feel their contribution amounted to something. For the company, it's the last chance to make peace with the departing member of the team, sending them away with more positive impressions.

There is also the matter of what goes around comes around. Many companies operate in a relatively small marketplace and the chances of coming across the employee in another company, as supplier (or even client) are quite high. This works both ways, too.

The writers at Businessballs.com put this quite well: “The adage about treating people well on your way up because you might meet them on the way down applies just as well to on your way out.” So they advise departing staff to approach an exit interview, if it is offered, in a positive way: “Recrimination, blame, revenge and spite are destructive feelings and behaviours so resist any temptation you might have to go out with all guns blazing.” Nice visual.

Talent out the door

There is also the risk that during a rather radical staff-letting exercise a company may have misread where its true strengths lie, or indeed who its true talents are. A decision to let a whole department go which is no longer considered critical to the business – i.e. only making a ‘non-billable' contribution to the company – can be risky when individuals in that department are rising talents, or already very accomplished. What happens to these skills? The competitors get them.

Forbes writer Mike Myatt highlights the pitfalls of failing to identify and nurture top talent in a company. “Few things are as costly and disruptive as unexpected talent departures,” he says. He questions the culture of a company that doesn't see the signs of disenfranchisement. And arguably worse still, actively pushes the talent out.

People leave a company (not sacked) mainly because they feel under-appreciated and disconnected. More than 40%, according to the Forbes story, don't respect the person they report to and around half say their values are different to their employer's. Some two-thirds don't feel their goals are aligned with the company's plans, and more than 70% feel undervalued and under-appreciated.

Myatt provides a litany of reasons which could explain how talent slips away from a company including: a failure to fire up their passions, challenge their intellect and engage their creativity; not developing on their skills or giving them a voice; providing insufficient support and care; weak leadership and not recognising their contribution to the company; and not delegating responsibility or securing their commitment.

Even in tough economic times when lay-offs are unavoidable and perhaps justifiable, there is always a good case for carrying out what needs to be done with professionalism and respect. The benefits far outweigh the costs, regardless of what the balance sheets say in the short term. Business is – or at least should be – a long-term investment, and that goes for the handling of staff as well.

Equally, parting employees – regardless of their talent or whether they had a choice – also have a unique chance to exit with grace and dignity. Who knows, they may find themselves back in the same office when business picks up again.


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