Are exit interviews a waste of time?

Several months ago in a conversation with a senior human resources executive from a very large, international corporation, he made a provocative statement that initially surprised me. “We’ve stopped doing exit interviews because we’ve found they’re a waste of time,” he said matter-of-factly. His rationale, backed up by conversations with individuals who had left his firm and many others, is that no one wants to burn bridges. They insist that they are leaving because the new opportunity is simply too good to pass up and that it has nothing to do with their experience with the company or their manager. In other words, it is a version of the classic break-up strategy which asserts that, “this is all about me, not about you.”
As I started to think about his theory, it made perfect sense. As I reflected on my own personal experience, did I ever leave a job that I was 100% happy in to go to another company who was begging me to join them? Hardly. And was I ever bluntly honest about all of the reasons I was leaving? Never. I was especially careful early in my career, and I’ve coached my kids to do the same thing.
But employees being reluctant to disclose all of their concerns about a company or their bosses is not the only problem with exit interviews. Are we sending the right message when we suddenly become very interested in employees after they’ve decided to leave? Are we sending the indirect message that we want them to be honest and open now because we know that they couldn’t be when they worked for us? Where were we when they were experiencing the questions, concerns and issues that persuaded them to stray and talk with another organization?
Finally, do managers really trust and will they take seriously feedback from soon-to-be former employees who have decided to jump ship and join what is often a competitor? To imply that feedback from ex-employees is a fair representation of the thoughts, concerns, hopes and desires of the current team seems flawed. Ex-staff members’ opinions may be unrealistically positive if, like my friend professed, they have a natural inclination to withhold any concerns. Or, in some cases, overly negative if they are on the fringe and may be someone who didn’t fit with the culture in the first place.
Clearly, opening lines of communication so that we better understand employees’ ideas, issues and concerns while they are still on our payroll is a better strategy. And an annual employee opinion survey is not the only – or perhaps even the best – way to accomplish that. Our next blog post will explore how managers can promote more open feedback from team members on a consistent basis and the impact that openness will have on their team’s culture.