Exit Interviews: Short Term Focus!

Exit Interviews: Short Term Focus!

One school of thought says that exit interviews should be used to extract learnings for organisation-wide improvements while the other says that it should focus on improving the one process that will be used immediately to replace the departing employees.


Exit interviews have now become an integral part of HR practice. Most companies do exit interviews, and many companies not only carry out a detailed analysis of what departing employees say, they also act on the insights gathered and track improvements. There are several companies which do exit interviews on behalf of other companies. Even a casual search on the internet will throw up ready-made questionnaires for carrying out exit interviews, as well as tools for administration and analysis.


Many companies have embedded exit interviews in their voluntary separation process. Full-and-final settlement of dues is contingent upon the completion of the exit interview. So much so, there are several resources on the world wide web that help people prepare for exit interviews. The logic there, presumably, is that



One must come off well even in an exit interview because one never knows whether one will have to interact again with that company or the concerned HR executive.



In short, there is now a rich ecosystem supporting exit interviews. 


Typically, these interviews ask questions about the employee’s good and bad experiences in the company, reasons for leaving and specific views on the compensation, benefits, appraisal, training and supervision practices of the company. Many exit interviews also include questions around the compensation, benefits, location, responsibilities and designation that the employee has been promised by her new employer. This information, duly processed, can be used to make improvements that can hopefully reduce attrition.


However, there are the usual concerns with exit interviews that plague all interviews and polling. Some employees give bland, unhelpful replies that offer no real insight into their reasons for leaving, either because by this time they have totally disengaged with the company or because they do not want to burn their bridges, should they have to return. Some others badmouth specific individuals to settle scores or just to let off steam. Often, they focus on the higher compensation they are getting because they believe, and it might be true, that that is what the interviewer is most comfortable hearing. Asking management for salary hikes basis the exit interview findings does not hurt anyone.


The organisation that is letting the employee go has its own challenges in processing the findings. Many managers believe that what the employee says while leaving has to be taken with a pinch of salt. If the employee says she is leaving for a higher salary, managers take the position that they want value-driven committed employees and not the money minded variety, so her other comments can be discounted. If the employee says that she is leaving because of better work, learning and growth possibilities, managers say this cannot be true since people generally change jobs for money, and feedback from untrustworthy employees should be ignored. All managers are not so cynical of course, but the underlying weaknesses in the quality of information gathered and the prevailing degree of acceptance function to reduce the value of the exercise.


Luckily, not all employees and managers are cynical, and many companies have thought a great deal about making this process useful. One way is to use specialist agencies who are good at making the employee comfortable, probing effectively without non-verbal or verbal judgement, and ensuring that no attribution is made. This anonymisation often leads to an improved quality of feedback. Another way is to filter out the feedback provided by highperforming employees that the company is truly sorry to lose and extract insights separately from that set. The belief here is that the company must pay serious attention to the changes that would ensure stickiness for their star performers.


Most of the planned benefits from exit interviews are medium to long term. The learning & development, appraisal, compensation and supervision practices, for instance, cannot be changed in a matter of weeks and months. There are, however, some insights that can be acted upon in the short-term, often with tangible benefits. These have to do with recruitment.


If the company wants to replace a departing employee with an equivalent one, it makes sense to probe the hiring process used by her new employer. Typical questions could be:

  •  How did the employee learn about the opening?
  •  How did the new employer learn about the employee?
  •  What was the time between the first contact and the offer letter?
  •  How many interviews did the employee go through?
  •  What was the duration of the interviews?
  •  Were they scheduled in a convenient manner?
  •  What did the employee like most about the hiring process?


Many more can be conceived along these lines. The chances are that the employee will be unrehearsed for these questions and will see no reason to not share what exactly happened.


There will also be greater acceptance of the findings, by the organisation, because the whole information gathering would have been fact-based, and, by and large, not a search for opinion. The best part of this shift is that most of the learnings would be immediately actionable. Also, the focus will shift from the present to the future. If the interview goes well, the employee can be roped into an alumni programme that has a fee-based incentive for proposing good hires in the future. The discomfort of the employee in the process and the negative energy which often flows into discounting exit interview findings will be largely avoided.


The big resistance for such a shift from long-term to short-term focus would come from the entrenched opinion that exit interviews should be used to extract learnings for organisation-wide improvements. The alternative view that exit-interviews should focus on improving the one process that will be used immediately to replace the departing employees, sounds much less lofty. It should be kept in mind that



Attrition is a fact of life arising from the new contract between management and employees: the former cannot ensure life-long employment and growth, because of rapid technology change, mergers, acquisitions and divestments, and the latter cannot ensure life-long loyalty.



If that is the case, one can justify a more utilitarian approach to the design, analysis and use of exit interviews.


The ecosystem that has been built around the exit interview practice is not likely to support this change. However, all change begins small and all initiatives leave a mark. If visible benefits start flowing in, the ecosystem will adapt to support it. As always, some managers will make the shift early and reap the benefits. Many will retain the long-term flavour while adding some short-term actionable queries. Some will carry on as before. Again, as always, there is enough room for a multiplicity of practices. To each his own.


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Gautam Brahma is a management consultant who advises start-ups and SMEs on strategy & operations including sales, HR and IT. He carries an experience of over four decades in the public, private and non-profit sectors in telecommunications and IT industries. He has been an invited speaker on multiple industry forums and a monthly columnist on HR issues for nearly two decades. Gautam is based out of Gurgaon and can be reached at [email protected]


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