Kate Achille was ready to leave her marketing job at a lecture agency. When it was time for the exit interview, she was honest with her boss about how she didn’t feel heard during her year in the role, despite another coworker always having their opinions heard.
“The boss asked me why I was leaving the organization, and I told him, point blank, it was because of X,” said Achille. “In response, the boss, otherwise lovely, started laughing at me as if I had told him the funniest joke in the world. I thanked him for validating my decision and walked out of the office.”
Not long after the whole company got acquired, and then acquired again. “Somehow, that one toxic team member continued hanging on, so my move was definitely for the best,” she added.
It begs the question: Do leaders really hear what workers are saying during exit interviews? Or is it just another box to check during the offboarding process?
Some workplace experts say exit interviews are an important tool for HR folks to use to identify potential organizational or people management issues. But even HR professionals are divided on how useful they actually are.
A leaving employee might not be honest due to fear of burning a bridge or, on the flip side, might be so mad that they’re deemed an outlier. Amy Spurling, founder and CEO of the employee benefits management platform Compt, says that’s why she has axed exit interviews entirely. While she will have a conversation wishing a departing employee well and for closure, she doesn’t think it’s fruitful to spend time asking the classic exit interview questions because, by that point, they’ve checked out.
“I think they’re limited and not the most helpful,” said Spurling. “At best, you’re going to get the really unhappy employee to share all the things they are very unhappy about. Whether it’s accurate or not, we no longer can do an investigation because we already lost the employee. On the other end, you’re going to have an employee tell you nothing because they’re like ‘what’s in this for me?’”
It’s the main reason she believes most companies are doing away with exit interviews entirely. She says there’s a lot more value in stay interviews, pulse surveys, and the like, to figure out where the pressure points are earlier on.
“Once the employee is walking out of the door, if they give you actionable feedback, it’s a gift, but I find it to be very rare,” said Spurling.
Dr. Jim Kanichirayil, vp of growth at employee experience software company EngageRocket, believes towards exit interviews are a total waste of time, especially when a company has other indicators it can use to understand employee satisfaction.
“The instances where you are going to get something meaningful out of exit interviews are going to be few and far between,” said Kanichirayil. “If you have other types of infrastructure or processes that are built, then the exit interview won’t necessarily give you much.”
It’s a last-ditch effort to appear as if a company cares, stressed Kanichirayil. But if a company hasn’t listened to you before, why will they now?
“The exit interview is just going through the motions to what end?” said Kanichirayil. “In theory, the closure aspect of it makes sense, but that’s assuming that you have a fairly mature organization in terms of how they engage their employees and trust. The closure aspect goes away without that.”
Important part of employee lifecycle
Yet others argue that while they may not be perfect, exit interviews are an important part of the employee lifecycle, and do provide closure for both the employee and employer.
“They are your brand ambassadors and the reputation of the company,” said Nicola Watson, head of Tiger Recruitment’s HR division. “I’ve always felt that face-to-face, one-hour-long exit interviews are really important. Employees really value it and appreciate the time to understand their feedback.”
Insights from exit interviews were always reported back at the companies she’s worked for. If there was significant feedback, it was shared immediately. For more generic feedback, it would be grouped with other exit interviews over a time period and shared once trends were identified.
Security company 1Password has a data scientist whose job includes looking closely at exit interviews to identify those trends and report them back to HR. “We talk to individuals who do decide to depart and it’s very helpful to take this data and cut it into different segments by department and by trend,” said Katya Laviolette, chief people officer at 1Password. “You can see if there is a particular concern in any organization.”
But what happens with the data? Do any changes come from it? Watson said they do often have tangible, constructive outcomes. For example, a prior company she worked for had most of its social gatherings happen during happy hours with alcohol involved. When multiple exit interviewees discussed wishing there were more social activities not focused around alcohol, the company realized it was an issue. So it developed a breakfast club, where baristas come in to make coffee and tea for the team.
“A company that is running exit interviews and doing it properly, listening to the feedback, reporting back to senior leadership teams, and having an HR team that actually makes sure that the insights from it are used and that tangible results come from it, is really important,” said Watson. “If that’s not happening, then it is just a tick-box exercise. The employer is doing it but nothing is really coming out of it.”
Laviolette said that she’s seen instances where it’s led to more leadership and coaching support. She’s also seen exit interviews result in more regular check-ins with new hires to ensure that a job remit continues to meet their, and the employer’s expectations.
During an exit interview, there is a fine line between it being a space where a mad employee uses the time to vent and an opportunity to really make a change once they’ve left. “It’s the ability to be trained to know when to dig and asking people to elaborate,” said Laviolette. “Then you’re able to go back with your robust data.”