Since the mountains were young, HR departments have tried to get the real dish on company morale and conditions through exit interviews – formal debriefings of departing employees – but many staffing experts believe it is time to let this practice fade away.
“The reason the company is asking you for this information is supposedly because they want to understand either why you decided to leave or, if they’ve let you go, they want to know what your thoughts are about your management, your work and so on. HR might argue that there is a benefit there – I would argue that there’s none,” said Nick Corcodilos, a Lebanon, N.J.-based recruiter and author of Ask The Headhunter: Reinventing The Interview to Win The Job.
Corcodilos, who also hosts a Web site about staffing issues ( http://www.asktheheadhunter.com), has identified a number of flaws in traditional exit interview procedures. His pet peeves include interviews by HR staff who know the employee only through files and reviews, the filtering of results as they move from HR back to the employee’s manager, and the practice’s after-the-fact timing which means little or no benefits can accrue to the worker.
“It’s like doing an autopsy on someone who just died in a car accident – you might learn something for the greater good of science but you’re not really learning anything about how to improve this person’s life – it’s too late,” Corcodilos said.
People being people, there is also a serious credibility problem with many post-resignation dialogues, said Terry Szwec, the Toronto representative of Career Systems International, an Los Angeles-based employment consulting firm.
“When you ask employees on an exit interview basis to tell you the factors by which they are leaving, we find 70 per cent of the time people lie – it’s a self-effacing, ego-enhancing exercise for them to look good in the eyes of their former management and their colleagues,” Szwec said.
When she left her job with a non-profit womens’ advocacy group in Waterloo, Ont., to return to university, social worker Anu Chahauver didn’t lie to her exit interviewers but – with an eye on her future – she did have a very deliberate strategy.
“I had already thought about it and decided that I was not going to say anything about the other personalities, and any difficulties in the office, because it was a very small, close-knit organization and I just wanted to leave on a very positive note. Plus, it’s a small (professional) community, people move around, and I could be working with some of them again,” Chahauver said.
Generally speaking, the resignation and the exit are all about business – this is not the time to sit down with someone and open up your heart, Corcodilos said. However, if a manager – not an anonymous HR staffer – can meet with the departing employee on a one-to-one basis in an honest, open atmosphere some benefits may be salvaged from what is often an artificial and situation.
As her IT career has moved from front-line software development into product management, Camille Collantes has had several exit interviews of this more personal type, one with her immediate manager and a second, to her surprise, with the president of her Toronto-based company. On both occasions, she tried to be as candid as possible, and found that her concerns were met with interest, even penitence.
“The president said he was sorry that the company hadn’t been able to accommodate me, and meet my needs. He said, ‘You’re a talented employee and we wanted to keep you, but if we haven’t been able to address your career objectives we’re not doing a great job.'” Although there was some satisfaction in this mea culpa, Collantes was left with the lingering feeling that had she known his door was open, she could have aired her concerns earlier and possibly even stayed with the company.
With replacement costs for a high tech employee sitting at one to one-and-a-half times the worker’s annual salary, and people more loyal to their craft than to their company, Szwec said a better practice is asking employees what will keep them happy in their jobs.
“I think that organizations are trying to grasp at information superficially, but I am a strong advocate of investing with the current population. I’d rather poll people while they are there, instead of worrying so much about the data when they walk out the door,” Szwec said.
If a company wants to be really proactive, Corcodilos said it should assume that every employee who works for them today is a possible departure – someone who might quit tomorrow.
The trick then, he said, is to “sit down with them and ask, ‘How are you doing right now? How are we doing as your employer?’ This is supposed to happen in job or performance reviews but it rarely does. No one wants to touch on that stuff, but if there was a little more candour throughout a person’s employment, if companies and workers were really willing to talk about the things that might make them want to part company then you have an opportunity to solve the problem without anyone leaving. If the axe has already fallen what is the point?”
After her guarded, impersonal exit interview, Chahauver couldn’t agree more – especially since emotions can run high at partings.
“I think you have to take the information with a grain of salt if people are bitter about leaving. If they are leaving on good terms I think the organization should be open to constructive criticism, but I say encourage an environment where employees can do that while they’re working there, instead of putting them in a position where they are out to stick it to who ever they don’t like after they quit.”