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Are exit interviews a fuzzy exercise?

February 15, 2013 15:24 IST

The purpose of this final meeting, better known as the exit interview, is simple: it aims to improve the situation for the next employee, writes Shyamal Majumdar.

OfficeMost companies still treat exit interviews as a fuzzy exercise It’s your last day, actually hour, in the office.

You have cleaned out your desk, finished saying your goodbyes and are about to hit the road. Wait a minute.

The path to the exit door goes through a cabin where the HR manager is waiting to have a little chat with you, or to fill out an online form, to share your experiences.

The purpose of this final meeting, better known as the exit interview, is simple: it aims to improve the situation for the next employee.

Most HR managers who have conducted these interviews say they get two kinds of responses during these interviews: one, those who want to ‘give it back’ to the company; and, two, those who want to stay safe and save their breath.

The net result in both cases is the same: a big zero.

Yet, most companies go through the motions for two reasons: to follow the template (‘this has been a long tradition’) or to keep up with the Joneses (‘all our competitors do it’).

An HR manager says ‘giving it back’ seems to be the most commonly adopted practice in exit interviews.

He gives a few examples compiled from a site called examiner.com.

Question 1: What was least satisfying about your job?

Answer: Every Sunday evening, when I started to think about having to work on Monday. The anticipation killed me.

Question 2: Were you happy with our performance appraisal process?

Answer: If mothers adopted your process, children would die of starvation.

Question 3: How would you rate the supervision you received?

Answer: Quantity was too much and quality too little.

Asked about the feedback he received about his work, a candidate said he got ample amounts of it on ‘commitment to company mission and ethical decision-making’.

And then there are employees who say all the nice things because they don’t want to burn the bridges.

The answers in such cases are: it’s a great company where they got great guidance from superiors, co-operation from colleagues and learnt a lot.

These are people who want to keep their mouths shut because they think exit interviews are just data-collection initiatives and nothing is likely to change in any case.

The general rule for them is, if you don’t have anything nice to say, lie.

Many companies say exit interviews are useless since any comments a departing employee makes -- whether they are positive or negative -- will be of questionable value.

He may be just being polite to avoid a potentially uncomfortable environment, or he may be voicing exaggerated complaints because he is in emotional turmoil.

Many say most of the questions asked in exit interviews have one thing in common: they should have been asked six months earlier because these issues all combine to determine the quality of the employee’s life at the company. But no one ever bothered to ask these critical questions while they mattered, except perhaps the headhunter who recruited away the candidate.

HR consultants say all this happens because most top managements still think exit interviews are just another fuzzy HR exercise that yields little and takes up too much time.

The other important reason is the unspoken corporate urge to avoid exposure to criticism.

Also, all too often, exit interview responses are simply filed away with the employee’s profile, to be used only if there is a problem later.

That is sad.

When they were first conceived, the primary aim of the exit interview was to learn why an employee was leaving, on the basis that criticism is a helpful driver for organisational improvement.

Exit interviews do serve a useful purpose if they are conducted with care and commitment.

For example, if too many people are leaving because they said they are being offered a better deal, the company should sit up and take notice about its compensation practices.

Exit interviews are sometimes useful from an employee’s perspective too.

By bringing certain issues to light, you would actually be helping your colleagues, who will have to deal with those problems long after you’re gone.

By using these meetings as an opportunity to spill your guts about the company’s difficult personalities and insufferable policies, you would do no good to either yourself or your soon-to-be previous employer.

If nothing else, constructive feedback would allow you to leave on a positive note.

Some companies -- very few actually -- have used exit interviews well because they help these firms keep an ear to the ground and remain more agile.

Even questions have moved from being a templatised ‘Why are you leaving?’ to ‘If you were in a competitor’s firm, how differently would you have performed?’

These companies know exit interviews are their last chance to get employee feedback. And to make the most of such interviews, they have a set system to track the answers, look for long-term trends and take action to correct mistakes or improve.

After all, the results and analysis of exit interviews can provide relevant and useful data that can be used directly in training needs analysis and HR planning processes.

Shyamal Majumdar
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