09 / The Benefits of Exit Interviews: Handling the Ugly Truth

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How important is an exit interview to a company? If the company in question is serious about improving its workplace, policies and retention rate, then the answer is pretty obvious.

Yet for many companies, exit interviews are merely a formality; a process that must be completed before an employee leaves. Many companies do not take the trouble to craft their interviews purposefully and adequately use the results. Some companies do not conduct exit interviews at all.

Exit interviews provide a company with a reality check – highlighting its weaknesses and validating its strengths. It determines the reasons an employee is choosing to leave the organisation, or in the instance of termination, it allows an employee to air their grievances in a professional, structured environment. Either way, an employer will always learn something of value from a leaving employee. Employees experience all facets of an organisation first-hand, including culture, environment, policies and management styles. Their opinions need to be valued.

For a long time there has been debate as to whether it is the duty of a line manager to conduct the interview, or rather an HR representative. An HR representative is more likely to be impartial, maintain procedure without becoming emotionally involved and is more able to identify and handle the possibility of legal issues such as discrimination or harassment. Employees are more likely to open up and trust a neutral party rather than have to face a line manager with what could be negative feedback. Even if the company chooses to outsource a consultant to run the interview, studies show that the results will be more effective and accurate.

Regardless of who conducts the interview, organisations are often missing the point of even having this procedure. There is little reason in conducting an exit interview if nothing is done with the results. The employee gains nothing from attending an exit interview, other than perhaps some catharsis in having an outlet for their criticisms of the company. The real benefit is for the Board of Management. It is the Board of Management that needs to be prepared to take on the feedback and put it to use. This is not to say that if one employee complains about a certain policy, the policy should be immediately changed. Instead, the results from an exit interview should be studied and if a pattern emerges where multiple people have commented on the same issue, the issue should be investigated and change should occur accordingly. For example, if a company notices a pattern where employees are leaving due to issues with their salary, the company knows it should investigate current salary trends.

But is the underlying problem as to why exit interviews are often not taken seriously because organisations are happy to live in ignorance? Is it easier for a company to ignore its own shortcomings rather than examine and change them? No company is perfect; however it is the companies that accept this and challenge themselves to improve that become employers of choice. These companies will enjoy the benefits of a happy, efficient workplace and a high retention of talent.

Exit interviews hold a mirror up to a company and its management. For an organisation to fully benefit from this, management needs to understand that even the ugly truth is ultimately better than pretty delusion.