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Pitfalls of Exit Interview

Pitfalls of Exit Interview

Imagine this: Employee A knocks on the door of his Superior one fine day and submits his resignation to him. What is the immediate reaction of his Supervisor? Bingo - a heart-to-heart chat. If Superior fails to retain Employee A, he then forwards the resignation letter to HR for processing. HR then calls up Employee A for an exit interview to unveil the reasons for his resignation.

HR goes through the tedious process of conducting a 2-hour long exit interview with the departing employee, using the standard exit interview template that is saved in the shared drive, and perhaps the format layout or content has not been reviewed for years, and hoping to elicit insightful reasons to his resignation, especially if the employee is a high-potential or a long-term serving staff. Despite following the structured process of conducting exit interview, making sure that every single question is answered, preparing data analytics and making recommendations targeted at the top 3 reasons for resignation in the organization, employee retention seems to be one of the top few challenges in any organization for the longest time. So what exactly went wrong?

If you tried searching online for an exit interview form, tons of standard templates get churned out instantly within a click of button. Interestingly, I have observed that the first and foremost question is always, “What is your reason(s) for leaving the organization?” Think about this, is it possible for a HR Officer to solicit the truth from an employee who is determined to leave the organization within that 2-hour session, based on a form that contains “standard” questions that can be easily found online? I am afraid the answer is no. Employees may not be upfront about their real reasons for resignation, in fear of “burning the bridges” as we all know that we are inter-connected to everyone in this corporate world via second or third degree network. Hence they fear the uncertainty and the imminent of “what goes around comes around” should they cite real reasons of unhappiness at work, perhaps due to unrealistic expectations of superior, colleagues who backstab etc. To gather truthful feedback from an employee goes beyond asking them “standard questions” from an exit interview form.

Let us dive deeper into how an exit interview is conducted. Usually once HR receives a resignation letter, they will call up the departing employee and fix an appointment for the exit interview. The agenda is already well-communicated over that 1-minute phone call and the employee will likely prep himself mentally on the “do’s” and “don’ts” for the session. Again, imagine this: the employee comes to HR Department, and is ushered to either a meeting room or the HR Manager’s office for the 2-hour gruelling session of interrogation, hopefully to shed some light on why is there another resignation case adding on to the rising attrition for that year. Think about this, this session is as good as asking the employee to share his introspection with the HR Officer within that short time span, and having everything recorded in black and white. Most likely, the employee is already high on his guard and very watchful of his words, knowing that this is a formal session with the HR. HR might just end up collecting heaps of superfluous findings masked with euphemism. Therefore again, it goes beyond a formal setting in an office to gather truthful feedback from an employee.

I have seen some unfortunate cases whereby exit interview was conducted on the last working day of the departing employee. Somewhat, exit interview is conflated into the cessation process and it serves as just another administrative task to the assigned HR Officer. The HR Officer goes into the meeting room with the departing employee and started scribbling every word that he says, regardless it makes sense or not. It all seems like a paper exercise, with no human touch, and just for the sake of getting some information out from the employee. Shouldn’t empathetic listening come into picture especially since HR is dealing with people? Unfortunately, such misstep results in three-folds consequences; failing to retain the employee, not getting the truth out from the employee, and strategizing in the wrong direction. Once again, human touch goes a long way in dealing with people, especially when employees are the assets to an organization, more emphasis should be placed even though they are sending signals of wanting to get out of that organization door.

In a nutshell, these are the several pitfalls to an exit interview and should be avoided:

  1. Asking standard questions
  2. Conducting in a formal setting
  3. Treating it as a paper exercise which demonstrates the lack of human touch

Of course, I am not saying that exit interview should be abolished from the HR processes. However, it should be reviewed periodically in a holistic manner in order to reap the most benefits out of a simple yet fundamental process.

Below are some recommendations to conduct effective exit interview:

  1. Prepare yourself. Always ensure that you gather sufficient background information of the departing employee before fixing that session, such as his length of service in the company, employment history, performance ratings, family background, any adverse records etc. These information can help you craft your questions, rather than asking a string of standard questions, hence more likely to point you in the correct direction in finding the truth. For instance, if the employee had been issued a written warning for insubordination recently, perhaps you may want to probe more about his working relationship with his Superior in a subtle manner.
  2. Make it an informal conversation. An informal setting or conversation can help to put the departing employee at ease and hopefully he is more willing to share on his reason for resignation, and areas of improvement to the organization. By hearing out these voices and making changes to address the pitfalls, hopefully it can improve the attrition rate. An informal setting could be meeting the employee in a bistro bar located opposite your office during lunch time or anywhere away from your office environment could be ideal to start an informal conversation.
  3. Demonstrate empathetic listening and be sincere. Conducting an exit interview should never be perceived as just another HR task of the off-boarding process. HR professionals should be open in hearing others’ opinions and feedback to facilitate an effective communication, rather than taking a defensive stand and treating it as another “complaint session” from the employee. Human touch goes a long way and it helps the employees to part in an amicable manner, especially if they are high performers and you might want to look out for them for future opportunities.

Therefore, hopefully by avoiding the pitfalls and making a conscious effort to put in place good practices can help to ensure that the exit interview is conducted in a proper and effective manner.

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