31 Aug 2023

Why exit interviews don’t work

 Exit interview

What is an exit interview?

Exit interviews are a common HR practice, widely recognised as an opportunity to gather insights from departing employees. On paper, they promise valuable feedback on company culture, managerial effectiveness, workplace inefficiencies, and more. However, the real-world application often falls short of these expectations.

Let’s delve deeper into why exit interviews might not be the ideal solution many employers believe them to be.

Fear of burning bridges

The primary reason exit interviews don’t work as effectively as employers hope is the fear of retribution or burning bridges. Departing employees may be wary of providing negative feedback for fear that it could affect their references or future job prospects. The pressure to maintain a positive relationship with past employers often leads to generic or insincere responses during exit interviews.

Timing is everything

When an employee decides to resign, it usually comes after weeks or even months of contemplation. By the time they hand in their notice, their emotional detachment from the organisation has already begun. Conducting an interview at this stage might not yield the most accurate representation of their overall experience. Their feedback could be skewed by recent events or emotions tied to their departure. Indeed, so close to their departure date, the employee may well have already mentally checked out of their job, and as a result may well choose to rush through their exit interview, and provide no meaningful feedback.

The Feedback Paradox

If an organisation genuinely valued feedback, would the employee be leaving in the first place? Many employees leave their jobs because they feel their concerns are not addressed or valued. Asking for feedback during an exit interview might come across as insincere or even ironic to such employees.

Lack of Action

One of the major criticisms of exit interviews is the lack of action taken based on the feedback received. Without a system in place to collate, analyse, and act on the insights, the exercise becomes a mere formality. Employees are less likely to offer genuine feedback if they believe it won’t result in any tangible change.

Trust Issues

It’s essential to recognise that the HR department’s primary role is to protect the interests of the organisation. This can create a perceived conflict of interest. An employee might wonder, “Is my feedback truly confidential? Will it be used against me later?” Trust is fragile, and if employees believe there’s even a slight chance their feedback could be mishandled, they’ll refrain from being candid.

Emotional Bias

The circumstances leading to an employee’s departure can be emotionally charged. Whether it’s due to personal reasons, organisational changes, or conflicts, the emotions tied to these events can cloud feedback. While it’s essential to consider the emotional well-being of employees, relying solely on exit interviews can lead to misguided conclusions based on emotionally-charged feedback.

Are there alternatives to the exit interview?

Given these challenges, what can organisations do to gain valuable feedback without relying solely on exit interviews?

  1. Stay interviews. Instead of waiting for employees to resign, why not conduct “stay interviews”? These interviews can be scheduled annually or bi-annually and offer an opportunity to discuss an employee’s experience, challenges, and aspirations within the organisation. They can provide real-time feedback and give employers a chance to address concerns before they escalate.
  2. Anonymous surveys. If trust is a concern, anonymous surveys can provide a platform for candid feedback without the fear of retribution. Regularly scheduled surveys can offer insights into employee satisfaction, concerns, and areas of improvement.
  3. Foster a feedback-friendly culture.Create an environment where feedback is encouraged and valued. Open-door policies, regular team check-ins, and transparent communication channels can make employees feel their opinions are genuinely valued.

While exit interviews can offer some insights, they shouldn’t be the sole method for gathering feedback. Their effectiveness is often compromised by factors such as timing, trust, and fear of retribution. By understanding their limitations and implementing alternative feedback methods, employers can gain a more holistic and accurate understanding of their organisational health. In the evolving world of HR, it’s essential to adapt and seek out practices that genuinely benefit both the organisation and its employees.