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How the exit interview fails the company

exit interview

Keep employees engaged so they don’t think about giving their two-week notice. 

Does your company conduct exit interviews?

Last week I blogged about employees turning in their two-week notice. As an HR person, it has been my experience that more than half the employees leave a company without saying anything to their manager about what causes the disconnect. In many cases, it seems that employees believe that managers are mind readers.

This week, I am taking the managers perspective on the employee’s two-week notice. If we know that employees are leaving a company over a disconnect about something that we might be able to fix, we should be pro-active and figure it out before they leave. The premise is that when I talk with employees who have just turned in their two weeks, I find that many just had a misunderstanding with their manager or the company but didn’t say anything about it. They waited for something to be fixed, but no one knew to fix or explain the business reason around the situation. 

Standardized exit interview questions

Below are the usual suspect of questions when it comes to exit interviews?

  • Why are you leaving?
  • What could we have done differently?
  • Did you feel supported?
  • Is there anything we could have done to keep you here?

OMG, gag me! The same questions that have been asked for millennia. No chit-chat, no warm up, no fluff. Just straight to business.  

If we are going to ask questions, ask questions 6 months earlier so we can intervene before the employee becomes frustrated. Ask these questions BEFORE THE EMPLOYEE DECIDES TO LEAVE! Once the decision to leave is made, IT’S TOOOOOO LAAAaaaTE! 

The script

Don’t expect an employee to spill the goods on the first conversation. Having a regular conversation with our employees will accomplish a few things:

  • Helps reinforce employee engagement. The tone of these discussions should be leaning towards coffee or beer with our friends vs. that of a manager and their underling.
  • Builds trust. Having a check in conversation on a regular basis can create a level of trust so that employees are more open about sharing.

When I meet with employees my script is along the following:

  • “I am not a mind reader and am not able to fix what I don’t know about so I want to make sure you have the opportunity to share ways to improve the department or company.”
  • “I might not be able to fix everything, but I will be truthful about why I am not, I will explain the business reason on why there might be a disconnect and I will try to come up with a solution.” 
  • “When you look good, I look good so even if you don’t (have the confidence to) believe in me, I am motivated to help you succeed here.”
  • “You are worth investing in, I want to build this team around you and a few key players so please let me know what I can try to improve the environment for you.”
  • Opportunity is different things to different people. For some it is training, for others it is title, and others it is large projects. You have nothing to lose in asking and again, what I don’t know about I am not able to help out with.” 

Remember, my priority is to keep the stellar employees from turning in their two weeks. This is not an exercise I have with folks who are not succeeding in the position or just turning in the status quo. 

HRNasty is in a tizzy

Pull up a seat and let me tell you what is wrong with the exit interview.

  1. It’s too late.  It’s TOO LATE!!!! Did I say it is too late?
  2. When we ask these questions, 90% of the time, we are going to hear answers from two types of employees:
    1. The employee that is pissed off and bitter. (This isn’t usually the employee we want to save) They are going to shit on their manager, the benefits, the company, the co-workers and the coffee. Even if the reasons are legit, the attitude with which they are delivered discredits the source. Change isn’t born from a nasty or negative attitude.  
    1. The employee (Usually a very solid employee) that knows better and doesn’t want to burn bridges. They aren’t going to what will help us. They are going to give us what they think we want to hear.
      1. I am leaving for a once in a lifetime opportunity
      1. The commute is easier at this new place

The above are doo-doo. As Yoda would say, “Grin fucking us they are” 

Very rarely are we going to inspire a stellar employee to give us the real scoop. They are a stellar employee because they do two things well:

  1. Get shit done
  2. Understand how to navigate the political gauntlet of managerial hyperbole.

If an employee only gets shit done and doesn’t know how to communicate or play well with others,

they really aren’t stellar, they are dependable.

What stellar employees won’t say

The stellar employee that is leaving for company X is the employee we want honest feedback from so we can fix what is broken. Let’s face it. This employee isn’t going to tell us any of the following for fear of discrediting their hard work and good reputation. 

  • Lacks respect of their manager
  • Wants to work with smarter colleagues
  • Company decisions are not making sense

They are going to play the political game and give us a politically correct answer. Stellar employees know better than to burn bridges.

Most employees quit a manager, they don’t quit a company.

BUT, if we talk with employees on a regular basis. . . if we ask similar questions every 4-6 months, check in, stay connected and create engagement, we may be able to avoid the exit interview. Asking these questions BEFORE the employee emotionally and mentally quits puts the manager and the company in a very different position. The company can play offense. They don’t have to play defense.

There is an “I don’t care” period between when an employee thinks about quitting and the time they turn in their notice. This is the time the employee is “done”, “kaput”, fini’, and flown the coop.  

Employees who are convinced to stay with a company after they turn in their notice usually quit within 6 months. It’s just too late. Their minds are made up. Their hearts are just not in it. At the first sign of another disconnect with the company, it is too easy to revert back to a desire to quit. It’s more human nature than a malicious attitude.

Lost faith in humanity

Yes, I know that most of you are thinking I have lost my faith in humanity. I have given up, have a negative attitude and isn’t this what HR is known for? For those of you thinking that HR is supposed to save the employee, you would be wrong.

My job is to think bigger than one employee at a time. I am thinking about scale. It is my responsibility to get to the root of the situation. I want to address the stellar employees BEFORE they quit on the company and are just a butt in the seat. It is in my best interest to get to them before they are looking for the next opportunity on the company’s dime.

I want the brilliant mind tackling an audacious problem and not putting that brain power to a job search where they can work for the competition.

For those of you who had humanity on their mind a paragraph ago, let me seal the deal and take it off the table.

I do NOT recommend having a stay interview conversation with all employees. No. I say put the energy into the chosen few. Managers should prioritize special snowflakes. Focus on the employees that not only get shit done but know how to navigate the political juggernaut and scale ideas. It’s OK to not want to keep all employees. More than likely, we don’t. I want to prioritize these conversations and start with the stellar employees. HR doesn’t try to make the workplace a better environment for the marginal employee. I want to put my effort into keeping stellar employees engaged.

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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