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Exit interviews are too late

One of the last things a departing employee does before handing in his or her keys is the

traditional “exit interview” (Fun fact:before the 21st century people used to go into offices and were handed physical keys for securing the facility)

If you learn anything insightful in an exit interview, you’re doing it wrong.

In a failed employer/employee relationship, one or both parties will usually have an “I wish I knew” moment:

  • A company that loses a sensitive employee because they were so crushed by a manager’s critical feedback.

  • An employee learning that there is no mentorship in the role they accepted.

  • A reorganization that left the employee feeling ignored or displaced.

By the time the exit interview is occurring, there’s no room for repair or rehabilitation.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t conduct exit interviews. Companies want to avoid making mistakes, so while it’s too late to repair the employment relationship with the departing employee, exit interviews may help avoid the same errors with other, future employees.

The shared perspective that maybe this can help “someone” often creates an atmosphere of candor and bluntness that enables the departing person to vent a bit, and the HR person to copiously transcribe and absorb the feedback.

Insights can be real-time or looking backward. Real-time insights are uncomfortable for the person providing them and GOLD for the person receiving them. Insights about past events are comfortable for the employee but PAINFUL for the employer. “Why didn’t you speak up earlier” is a reflexive question one might ask when getting an exit interview insight. It’s almost always responded to with “I DID, multiple times” or “I was told…” — the smallest of dismissive comments back can shut down the most powerful statements. A sensitive employee may already be uncomfortable speaking up for fear of an angry response or retaliation. They may share information delicately, softly, quietly. Once the exit interview happens, their volume increases. Their anger intensifies. The regret in the room is mutual and is more painful because it’s too late.

In a way, your only real job as the employer is to make sure that by the time the exit interview happens, there’s close to no new information. Even a single “I wish you said that earlier” can, when investigated, prove to have been the “cause of death” for the employer/employee relationship. The relationships start healthy. In extremely few circumstances would someone start a job and immediately dislike the company.

Instead, the dissatisfaction arrives like a small tumor, possibly caused from neglect. It can come from abuse (criticism, for example, even if constructive in intent). Once a person shares their satisfaction issues with coworkers, the tumor can metastasize. Suddenly confirmation bias flares up and all sorts of things appear to validate how little the company cares about its employees. The water cooler, neighborhood bar or private Slack channel becomes an echo chamber reinforcing how adversarial things seem to have become. “They’re setting me up to fail” is a common phrase, often disputed by managers and business owners. Most businesses argue “we gain nothing by doing that.” This shows the power of confirmation bias: people listen to a narrative that may or may not be there.

Here are some phrases that create an environment for these tumors to develop and grow:

  • I was told no.

  • They said this won’t happen as long as ____ is working here.

  • I was told we’ve always done it this way.

  • I was asked not to question it.

  • Every time I brought it up, they don’t have time to discuss it

  • This is not what they said during my hiring interview

Even a yearly performance review if spent looking backward is less useful than more frequent mid-year discussions and course corrections. “Looks like you didn’t hit the goals we set for you last year” is an insight with utterly no ability to fix, just hope that somehow things will change moving forward.

The exit interview may be well-intentioned but it’s just too late. If a company truly cares about listening to and keeping great people, they need to do it immediately after the person is hired, and continuously. By the time the person leaves, the ONLY discussion items should be sharing of mutual appreciation for the experience and contributions.


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