An Uneasy Look at In-House Exit Interviews
You are through with Old Town. There don't seem to be enough opportunities for someone like you. Your career has already started stalling and you have decided to leave the town, for good! Maximum City, the spanking and upcoming cosmopolis, just across the river, is an attractive destination. Those who have relocated recently to Maximum City talk animatedly about the sprawling green acres and the booming economy. Then one sunny morning you finally take the plunge, drive out of Old Town, cross the river and enter the new territory. As soon as you cross the river, you take out a nasty looking petrol bomb and hurl it at the bridge to burn it down?
Now, you would agree that the last piece of action is absurd and insane. You wouldn't do any such thing. Not, if you belonged to the category of normal folks. You don't know what life has in store for you at the Maximum City. If the grass does not turn out to be as green as you imagined, you may have to reconsider returning to Old Town.
Yet, we expect departing employees to do just that. To be completely candid in their in-house exit interviews, point out what’s wrong with the company and burn their bridges. The odds are, no one's going to do that except a few oddballs. Most people detest saying unpleasant things on your face. Have you ever heard of the hilarious anecdote about a manager in a company who held performance review discussions with his direct reports standing in adjoining stalls in the washroom? So that he did not have to face them or look in their eyes when giving a bad review. As if this inherent reluctance most people have in giving you negative remarks weren't enough, in-house face-to-face exit interviews require an employee to burn their bridges behind them as well.
People are simply afraid that anything negative they might say would go back to their managers. And, for very good reason too. Eight times out of ten that's precisely what's going to happen, no matter what the assurances are. Books and websites on managing your career rightly advise you to stay clear of the candour trap. CIPD’s (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) advice to leavers is: don’t kick over the hive in an exit interview. Small wonder then, people hand out kind and polite trash in face-to-face exit interviews. Small wonder again, the most commonly cited reason for leaving an organization in in-house exit interviews is “For better prospects” or “just need a change."
Exit interviews have been around for more than half a century and their popularity has not waned. A pre-recession CIPD survey reveals that 90% of the participating companies use exit interviews. The latest SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) Survey 2012 reveals an even more interesting statistic. More than 70% of the participating companies use exit interviews to keep a track of their employee engagement levels. Widespread use of exit interviews in organizations was never in question. But here’s the sobering news. Less than half of those companies that use exit interviews actually use the information to develop and implement retention strategies.
The actual situation may be much starker. Ask the HR attendees in any workshop: "how many of you have an exit interview in place?" Nearly all the hands go up. Now ask: "how many of you are actually using the exit interview information to improve your retention figures?" Now only a few of those hands are up in the air.
Why is this happening? Well, here are the top offenders:
There’s no truth serum: The departing employees hate to hurl Molotov cocktails and demolish their bridges. We agree about that, right? When the interviewer's purpose and the interviewee's interests are completely out of alignment, the only way to get the truth out of the interviewee is the truth serum. Unfortunately, in business organizations we don't have access to narco-analytic stuff.
Line managers are often a part of the problem: Strangely, in some organizations line managers do the exit interview. HR is everybody's job, right? But often the line managers doing the honors are a part of the original problem that led to the exit. Going to a police station and finding that the officer who is taking your complaint is the same guy who mugged you on the street doesn't inspire much confidence. Does it?
Not grounded in numbers: Exit interviews by their very structure miss out on quantitative information. Comprising only or mostly open-ended questions, in-house exit interviews generate data that are qualitative in nature. Reducing qualitative information to numbers is a long and cumbersome task. Who has the time to do that? Besides, exit interviews often generate data that are ambiguous and difficult to interpret. Excerpted from an actual exit interview, try this one for size:
– “So, why are you leaving?”
– “If I could be at two places at the same time, I wouldn't have left.”
No actionable data: No tickee no washee. If you don’t have the ticket you don’t get the laundry, simple. If you don't have quantitative data, you don’t get the analyses that reveal important patterns. You will not get to know why there is such a big exodus from people in the 25-30 age group. Or, why 43% of all young engineers in the 1 to 3 year tenure bracket leave the company. In-house exit interviews fail to reveal such patterns and hence rarely become actionable.
Lack in rigour and vigour: Face the facts. Exit interviews are low priority. People are not just serious enough about them. They are done perfunctorily and without half the seriousness of a job interview. And the slipshod work shows. Small wonder, the in-house exit interviews fail to make any significant impact on retention strategies.
What does it all add up to? Are exit interviews useless? Should you chuck them away? Heavens, no. Companies that have some sort of exit interview in place, however flawed, are way better off than those that don’t. It would be silly to throw out the baby. So keep the baby and just change the bathwater.
CIPD survey findings are unambiguously clear. Exit surveys conducted by third party external firms are much more reliable than in-house exit interviews. The reasons are not difficult to see. An exit survey conducted by a third party external agency allays the fears about burning bridges or getting a bad reference. The surveys are anonymous; they do not require departing employees to identify themselves. And the surveys are rigorously developed tools based on research, not some loosely compiled list of questions.
So if you want to unravel the causes of your voluntary turnover, turn to well researched, externally provided exit surveys instead of flogging a comatose horse.