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Don't ask me why I'm leaving: why exit interviews don't work

If you want to know why people leave your business, don't wait until they've resigned before you ask them.

It’s happened. One of your highest-performing team members has just resigned and it’s caught you by surprise. Once you recover from that news and regain your composure, you’re going to do two things next, neither of which is going to work.

First, you’ll try to talk her into staying.

Whichever way you frame and nuance this discussion, you’ll end up offering the departee one or more of the following, if she’ll reconsider her decision:

  • You’ll offer to pay her more.

  • You’ll talk about promotion being a possibility now or at the next promotion-round.

  • You’ll be open to moving her to other projects, or putting her on secondment, etc.

  • You'll commit to address the cultural issues that she identified as being behind her decision to quit.

Most often, none of the above is going to work and, in the cases where it does, the employee is still likely to leave sooner than later, unless you really have addressed the root issues leading to her original decision to leave.

In fact, ironically, the conversation that you've just had probably made things worse. Making such offers, at the point of her departure, reveals to the employee that the business had the scope to make them before, but didn’t take the time or care to do so. Chances are she'd intimated to you that one or more of these points was an issue for her some time ago and you did nothing back then. She had to go through the emotional wrench of deciding to leave to get your attention. This annoys most people and often reinforces their decision to move on.

And you can be sure that the conversation you’ve just had will get around the office, and that others will conclude that the best way to get a promotion around here is to resign. Most won’t follow through on that directly, but they’ll certainly resent the situation. After all, they didn’t show you disloyalty by resigning, and their reward for that is to witness someone who did being offered a promotion.

Ok, so let’s say that your high-performing team member is still leaving, despite your late intervention. What now?

Well, now you’ll run an exit interview, so you can learn lessons. This will give you valuable, actionable insights into why your team member is leaving that can help you to retain other employees. Right?

Wrong. In general, you’ll be disappointed or misled by the results of an Exit Interview. Here’s why:

1. People rarely tell the truth in Exit Interviews

There are plenty of reasons why departing employees don’t want to be completely open in an exit interview:

It's a small world

What I’m thinking: You’re upset that I’m leaving, which is a bit intimidating. I really don’t want to create an enemy in this small community by telling you what I really think about you/my manager/the VP, etc. And, if my new job doesn’t work out, I might want to leave the door open to coming back, so why burn bridges?

What I’ll tell you: It's not you, it's me. I just want a new challenge/to experience new projects/to broaden my experience. Or, if I do discuss my real reason for going with you, I’ll heavily dilute my expressed views.

Guilt masquerading as Principle

What I’m thinking: I’m moving for a big salary hike – they pay much better elsewhere than this company does. I feel quite guilty about moving for that reason because this company took me in as a graduate and trained me up. I'm aware that my going makes your job harder and puts the project even further behind schedule. I know how much pressure you are already under. I feel bad about all of this, and I don't want people to think of me as a mercenary. I don't want to think of myself that way either.

What I’ll tell you (and myself): I'm truly passionate about making goldfish insurance easier to buy for the over-50s, and I just feel that the company no longer shares that same passion and sense of mission with me. But Company X does, so my deep sense of purpose leaves me no choice but to go there.

Emotional Exhaustion

What I’m thinking: I’ve thought about this a lot. In fact, I’ve spent sleepless nights weighing up the negatives and positives until I finally committed to a decision. I haven’t been looking forward to this final emotional hurdle before I leave, and I just want it to be over as quickly as possible.

What I’ll tell you: Whatever is easiest, such that we part on good terms without me exhausting myself further, emotionally.

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The problem, in each of these cases, is that you won't get to hear what you need to hear, if you are to avoid losing other people for the same reasons. You'll either take no action or, worse, you'll spend time chasing phantoms.

In other situations, departing employees may actually want to tell you directly why they're going, but this time, the problem is that:

2. You don’t want to hear the truth

Consider this from the manager’s side. How bad does this high-profile departure look for the leadership team or the direct line-manager? After all, we’ve all heard that “people leave managers, not companies”, right? With that in mind, managers frequently steer the exit interview away from the truth of the matter to avoid having to face or record a negative reason for the employee’s departure that could impact upon the manager’s ego or reputation. Sometimes this is unconscious and sometimes it isn’t.

This behaviour isn’t limited to direct managers; more senior people do it too and, in fact, are usually more skilled at controlling the flow of information that reaches the next level of management. Nor are CEOs immune. Because they personally identify strongly with their companies, someone leaving feels like a verdict upon them personally, and one which they may wish not to talk about at the next board meeting.

Even HR professionals are tempted to engage in this misdirection game. Mud may stick to the culture or benefits regime when a high-performer leaves, and those are owned and implemented by HR. Other times, it's to avoid a difficult post-interview explanatory debrief with a sensitive senior manager or CEO. HR Directors are the first to understand that, frequently, it's the messenger that gets shot, and they learn, early-on, how to duck.

The two techniques employed by the exit interviewer in these circumstances are:

Don’t ask, don’t tell: The meeting is pleasant, you wish your departing team member all the best, implore her not to be a stranger etc. But you carefully don’t ask: why are you leaving? Nor do you invite her to take the discussion that way.

These aren’t the droids you’re looking for: In between the small-talk, you actively suggest a reason as to why the employee is leaving and you don’t allow the space for a proper response or exploration of that. The meeting ends. You then report back your reason as being the one discussed at the meeting: “It’s nothing to do with the company, she just wants to try a new city/problem domain/etc.”

Now, everyone feels much better about the circumstances behind the employee's departure. We all take comfort from the fact that there's nothing inherently wrong with the company or how we're managing it. Until, that is, the next person leaves.

3. I can't remember exactly why I'm leaving

The Peak-End Rule is a psychological phenomenon that affects the human mind’s ability to accurately represent a set of experiences over time, when asked about them later. Put simply, we can’t properly average our experiences. When asked to report how we feel about past experiences, our perception is very heavily skewed towards both the peak event and the last event that we experienced. This comes at the cost of discounting much of the experiences in-between. So, when asked to explain what we think about the company’s culture in an exit interview, we are unreliable witnesses.

Consider a case where an employee has found the environment in the company unpleasant over the last few years. You need to know about this state of affairs, because, if true, it will lead to further retention issues, and worse. But when a resignation occurs, the tension that was building up between colleagues around certain issues is released. Old rivals are, now, pleasant to the departee, organising a leaving night, circulating a farewell card for signing, buying her a present, and stopping by her desk to say how much she'll be missed. Then you hold the Exit interview.

This most recent, positive experience will count disproportionately in the departee’s perception of her years at the company. The feedback that you need to hear will often be diluted by the Peak-End Rule.

This, of course, works both ways. Sometimes, departing employees report a generally negative experience across their time in the company, due to a recent unpleasant event. A common example of this is where senior executives ignore an employee in her last weeks or display animosity towards her, simply because she has resigned. Of course, this is extraordinarily short-sighted - every alumni of your company is a possible future customer, referrer or recruiting sergeant.

So, if we conclude that exit interviews are much less effective than they at first seem, how can you learn why people leave your company?

Ask people why they would leave, long before they resign

The best time to hold exit interviews is pre-emptively and regularly, as part of your management relationship. Obviously, you don’t call these exit interviews - they're the one-to-one’s, progress meetings or similar, that you are likely having already. But, within those forums, create an environment where you can properly explore, with team members, their psychological relationship with the company and what’s on their minds, both good and bad.

For example, do you ask how your colleague feels about things currently, and why, before you dive into that task-based status update? If not, you should – but only if you are prepared to explore the answers that you get. Encourage your team members to tell you what they’ve been really pleased about recently and what pissed them off. And ask them about how they think the culture of the company is evolving. Don’t do this once, out of the blue. It should be a regular conversation, so that people become more relaxed about having it. Above all, make sure that you pursue to resolution the issues raised, as best you can, and that you are seen to have done so.

Because it’s at this point – before someone has resigned – that you can actually take meaningful retention actions. It’s a huge personal decision to resign, built up to over weeks and months, and requiring employees to surmount a considerable emotional hurdle on the way to that decision. Once passed, it’s almost always too late to bring them back again. And, with the psychological bond between the employee and the business then severed, there’s little impetus for her to tell you what you should have asked long before: "What would make you want to leave us?"