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Exit Interviews Are Band Aids On Broken Legs

So let’s say you’re working for a company with turnover problems (i.e. losing your best people to competitors) and management comes to Human Resources to figure out why people are leaving. What far too many HR people will suggest is that the organization should use an exit interview to get the information and report on a quarterly basis. Some will even pretend it helps their business chops because they get to report numbers on spreadsheets and create pretty graphs.

Let’s not fool ourselves: the best case scenario is your exit interview actually provides new information because your company management is inept at figuring out what should already be known. That’s the best case scenario!

Acing The Exit Interview

You know what most books and websites say about doing well in an exit interview as the departing employee? Don’t say anything negative. And you know what I say to that? It is absolutely correct. Negative information can get back to the manager (no matter what the HR person promises you). In fact, unless you are leaving a department with a ton of turnover, I would guarantee that anything specifically negative mentioned gets back to the original manager.

Now this may not mean you burned a bridge there. If they are a good manager, they would take any negative feedback and try to improve. But remember back to why I said you were doing the exit interview? Company management is trying to compensate because they can’t figure out the basics (like why employees are leaving). So maybe, just maybe, we’re talking about the type of manager that won’t take your feedback in the best way possible.

Prevention Just Sounds Good

So when exit interviews fail to accomplish their goal (or they do manage to accomplish their goal only to be left with no solution), some in HR will talk about taking preventative steps in order to stop the mass exodus from your organization. They’ll take what little information they got and try to do something with it. Most likely this will include some combination of succession planning, compensation/benefits analysis and adjustment, new training and development programs, and/or adding some new type of benefit program (tuition reimbursement is a common one).

The real problem is twofold. The first one is that it will take forever to get any of these changes approved and that fact alone won’t be communicated with current employees. So if you are actually working on something that you know is a problem and it will take six months or a year, people should at least know that you’re aware of it. The other problem is that management training is rarely a part of the solution because it is rarely mentioned as a problem.

Here’s a clue by four: nobody (and I mean NOBODY) is leaving your organization because of a tuition reimbursement plan. Yes, that is a good benefit that you can offer but it isn’t a make or break deal buster. And it is something you can fix with more money if it really is an issue.

The Real Solution

You need real managers. Ones that know their employees well, that have open lines of communication, that have some basic investigation and analytical skills, and don’t need an exit interview to be told why people are leaving. I’m not even talking about leadership here. These should be basic skills that we can equip any manager with. If we aren’t talking about that, we’re not talking about any realistic, long term solution.

All of those other things are band aids. Yes, your compensation should be adjusted if it is out of whack. Yes, your benefits should be adjusted if they are a problem. But making those adjustments means nothing if you do not have competent managers who are properly equipped with the skills necessary to understand your workforce’s critical needs. If you had that, why would you need an exit interview?

By Lance Haun

Strategy for The Starr Conspiracy. Former HR pro. Portland guy (Go Blazers!) and WSU alum (Go Cougs!). I get to write about what I want here.

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