If you’ve ever left a job, chances are good that at some point you took part in an exit interview. Maybe it was a quick chat with your boss before you left. Maybe a short face-to-face discussion with someone in Human Resources. Or maybe you filled out a questionnaire.

Regardless how or by whom you were interviewed, ask yourself these questions:

What was on my mind when I offered my responses?
What would I have liked to share, but didn’t?
What did I hope they would have asked me, but didn’t?

If you answered that you weren’t totally forthcoming, that you didn’t say all you really could have, that some of the most important questions weren’t even asked – you’re not alone.

Robbie Abed, the author of the 2017 book “Fire Me I Beg You: Quit Your Miserable Job (Without Risking it All),” even actively encourages employees leaving an organization to “lie like hell” and avoid saying anything negative, especially about their boss.

In an interview with Stephen Jones published in the Business Insider (November, 2021), Abed said, “If they ask, ‘Do you have any constructive feedback?’, you should say: ‘Nothing really. I enjoyed working here, and I hope I get to work with others in the future.’”

While it may be surprising to see someone openly suggest this as behavior when you leave a job, it’s not surprising that people take this approach. Concerns that negative or even constructive feedback might burn bridges often block the urge to share bad news. Many people prefer to avoid confrontations or difficult conversations even if there are relatively low stakes, such as when departure from the organization is imminent.

If you are charged with understanding the drivers of attrition, maybe as a Human Resources professional, a recruiting specialist or a leader simply trying to discover what’s driving turnover, exit interviews can offer a wealth of information. Figuring out how to navigate the exit interview process and tap into that information is key to creating a process that yields what you need.

So, what can you do? If you’re interested in leveraging the benefits of high-quality exit interview data – and there are many – how do you make sure you get it, and what steps can you take to ensure people are telling you the truth?

Many organizations do exit interviews. In 2012 and 2013 Harvard Business Review surveyed 188 executives and interviewed 32 senior leaders. Respondents represented 210 organizations in 33 industries, headquartered in more than 35 countries. Approximately 75% of the companies in the study conducted some form of exit interviews for some departing employees. Of those, 71% had their Human Resources departments handle the process (Groysberg, 2016).

The process some industry experts recommend involves semi-structured interviews between the exiting employee and someone in Human Resources and cites the importance of dialogue and exchanging information in a conversational way. The ability to read body language is often mentioned as valuable in these cases, as well as the ability to probe with follow-up questions.

This may sound like a well-reasoned approach, but we believe there is a better one. Here are two reasons we support a different, and we think more effective, method of gathering the critical information that exiting employees can offer:

Trust and Methodological Concerns

First, let’s talk about Trust. The elephant in the room here is that in many organizations Human Resources can be the least trusted department of all.

In 2021, Workfest surveyed over 500 employees of small and mid-sized businesses and asked them pointed questions about their relationship with Human Resources (Evans, 2020). The findings were eye opening:

  • 20% of respondents said they didn’t trust Human Resources.

When it came to going to Human Resources with problems…

  • 35% said they didn’t trust Human Resources to help.
  • 31% said they feared retaliation for going to them.
  • 38% of respondents felt Human Resources did not equally enforce company policies.

If we know this is a problem, how can we assume departing employees will be open and truthful in interviews conducted by Human Resources representatives? The goal of these interviews is to get honest information. Without honest, straightforward input, it’s just noise and has no value. Worse, it could lead to making decisions based on faulty information and as a result lead to impacts that are opposite to the organization’s intended or desired outcomes.

The second reason we support a different approach has to do with Methodology, specifically depending upon in-person interviews conducted by Human Resources.

When you sit across from someone and answer potentially difficult questions or discuss uncomfortable topics, you’re not as likely to be fully open and straightforward with your responses. You may feel pressured. You may feel that your honest answers are not what the interviewer truly wants to hear. Or you may be worried that if you say the wrong thing it might affect your separation, your references, or even colleagues who remain with the organization. This phenomenon is known as Social Desirability Bias: when an interviewee feels pressured to give socially desirable responses, which may not be their honest opinions. This bias can influence the interaction when participants feel that their responses will be judged or evaluated, leading them to modify their answers to conform to what they believe is socially acceptable.

Additionally, some employees will give better answers if they have time and quiet to think about what they want to say. For individuals with a preference for introversion, being questioned by an interviewer in a timebound situation can result in the exiting employee feeling pressured to respond without the opportunity to reflect on their answers. The result can be incomplete and inaccurate responses.

While there is some value in reading body language or using probing questions as the more traditional approach recommends, the effectiveness of both is highly dependent on the skill level of the interviewer and how accurately and thoroughly they record their observations. Recording information and data points from this type of interaction accurately requires meticulous notetaking, which is counterproductive to having the interview feel like a conversation. Additionally, if interviewers have different processes or read people differently, the data recorded may be flawed or inconsistent.

The clear choice for performing exit interviews that produce valuable input and information would be to ensure that you make trust a priority and use a consistent, unbiased process. This can be accomplished most effectively and efficiently by conducting exit interviews using online surveys administered by an outside organization.

In their meta-analytic study in 1999, Richman, Kiesler, Weisband, and Drasgow discovered that research participants were typically more likely to disclose sensitive information when responding to self-administered online surveys than during in-person or telephone interviews. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Answering questions privately in an anonymous, online platform allows respondents to feel more at ease with saying what was on their mind.

However, a survey offers many other benefits than just honest answers.

  1. Consistency: Exit interview surveys provide a consistent set of questions to all exiting employees who complete it. This factor ensures that everyone is asked the same questions and evaluated against the same criteria making it easier to identify patterns and trends across the organization and to make data-driven decisions based on the feedback.
  2. Efficiency: Exit interview surveys are typically quicker and easier to administer than in-person interviews. They can be sent electronically and completed at the employee’s convenience. This can save time and resources for both the employee and the employer and affords the employee time and environment where they can reflect on their responses.
  3. Data Analysis: Exit interview surveys generate structured data that can be easily analyzed and reported on. This allows employers to identify common themes and issues and to make data-driven decisions based on the feedback received. Many platforms include robust analytical tools not just for quantitative data, but even qualitative data as well.
  4. Scalability: Exit interview surveys can be scaled to fit the needs of any organization, from small businesses to large corporations. This makes surveys a versatile tool for collecting feedback and improving employee retention and engagement.
  5. Data Accessibility: The data from online surveys can be instantly accessed via standard reports or even dashboards, which allows the users to identify trends quickly.

There are also important reasons to use a third-party provider rather than internal resources to conduct the interview surveys and to collect and report the data.

  1. Objectivity: A neutral provider can offer an objective perspective on the employee’s experience with the organization. Impartiality can be difficult for an interviewer from inside the organization. Their own perspectives as an employee may influence their interpretation of what they hear. They may have additional information about or experience with the departing employee that could affect how they capture responses or ask follow-up questions.
  2. Confidentiality: Employees may be more willing to respond openly and honestly to a neutral provider because concerns about potential consequences of their feedback are alleviated. This can lead to more accurate and useful information for the company.
  3. Expertise: A neutral external provider with both experience and expertise in conducting interviews and gathering feedback can offer more insightful and actionable data and reporting for the organization.
  4. Benchmarking: A neutral provider may have access to industry-wide data and benchmarks, allowing the organization to compare its performance to others in the same field or industry.
  5. Time and Resources: Conducting exit interviews can be time-consuming and requires significant internal resources from Human Resources or other departments responsible for the process. Outsourcing the task to a neutral provider can free up staff to focus on other important tasks.

These factors make a solid case for organizations that need and want to gather and leverage accurate exit interview data to use a third-party provider to conduct surveys online. The benefits are clear and, if the right actions are taken in response to the data collected, the process can pay for itself by pointing to opportunities that maximize employee engagement, improve the employee experience and, ultimately, reduce turnover.

References

Evans, N. (2020, February 18). Do Workers Trust HUMAN RESOURCES? Survey Reveals Divide Between Employers and Employees. Retrieved from zenefits.com: https://www.zenefits.com/workest/human-resources-helpful-or-horrible/

Groysberg, E. S. (2016). Making Exit Interviews Count. Harvard Business Review, 88-95.

Jones, S. (2021, November 25). Why you should ‘lie like hell’ in an exit interview and say only nice things about your boss, according to a careers expert. Retrieved from Business Insider: https://www.businessinsider.com/exit-interviews-you-should-lie-and-not-criticize-your-boss-2021-11

Richman, W. L., Kiesler, S., Weisband, S., & Drasgow, F. (1999). A meta-analytic study of social desirability distortion in computer-administered questionnaires, traditional  questionnaires, and interviews. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84(5), 754–775.