Exit Interviews: How Can We Make Them More Than a Waste of Time?

I find the New Year to be an inspiring time, and this week, I was inspired by my pal and HR pro extraordinaire Kris Dunn and his blog post on More Proof That Crappy Exit Interviews Do More Harm Than Good…

This is a great topic — and one I have lots of first-hand experience with. That’s because I have changed jobs more than a few times and, I have never had an exit interview worth my time, or seen an organization that ever made use of them properly as a smart talent management tool.

From what I have seen, exit interviews are usually just a box to check on somebody’s HR form, a meaningless exercise that most organization’s fail to handle properly or take seriously.

Exit interviews? Say as little as possible

My counsel to anyone leaving a company is that they should treat the exit interview experience as you would as if you were being cross-examined in court by the other side’s attorney: say as little as possible, keep your answers to “yes” and “no” if you can, smile a lot, and get out of there as quickly as possible — because no good can ever come from an exit interview.

Think I’m being too tough? Maybe, but here’s what Kris Dunn had to say at the HR Capitalist blog about the season-ending exit interviews the NFL Washington Redskins did with their players:

It’s true. It’s better to do nothing on the exit interview front than to do it poorly…

Clinically, the (Redskins) exit process was fine. Checking to see if anything was wrong or if anything needed to be followed up on – we get it and expect it.

But underneath, once you say you’re going to do an exit interview, the expectations rise, usually with one question that has two parts:

“Where’s the presence of someone who cares, but also someone that can make a change if things didn’t go well for me while I was here?”

And that my friends, is a big, big burden. Most people won’t tweet out their dissatisfaction, but you can bet they’re asking the same question if you handle your exit interviews in a similar fashion.”

In many workplaces, a pro forma process

My problem with exit interviews is that they are usually a pro forma process, and that they make the outgoing employee wonder if they should really be honest and open about what they are thinking and feeling. Do you really want to be perfectly frank as you’re heading out the door and perhaps take the risk of burning a bridge with your soon-to-be former employer? Doing that is rarely a career-enhancing experience.

Early in my career, when I was leaving the employ of the late, great Los Angeles Herald Examiner, I was counseled by a senior editor (and someone I trusted) to say as little as possible in the exit interview because the company wasn’t really using the comments to help improve the place. I took the advice, smiled in the exit interview, and said as little as possible.

Later in my career, when I was a manager and executive at a Fortune 500 company, I asked someone I trusted in HR about how the company used exit interviews. “You don’t want to know,” the HR pro told me, “but for you, I’d simply say that the company uses them to keep score — and I don’t mean that in a good way.”

I’m not sure exactly what that meant, but I never saw or received any feedback from the company that made me think that the exit interview process was ever used in a smart and serious way to better the company and how its handled employees.

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Why are they asking this now?

For me, the rub always was this simple question: Why are they asking this now as I’m leaving? Yes, the HR person handling the exit interview usually mumbled something about the comments helping the organization in some way, but as a manager and executive, I never saw the proof of that, or even the feedback from the exiting employees themselves.

Kris Dunn makes a good point when he notes that the lack of someone in the exit interview who can actually make a change if the outgoing employee says something worth changing is a big tip off to the seriousness of the process, but I keep coming back to this — why didn’t someone in management or HR formally ask employees what they thought about the organization BEFORE they were heading out the door?

That, to me, is the big problem with exit interviews — they’re too little, too late.

Maybe someone can point me to an organization that makes great use of exit interviews and can show just how they really help to move the company ahead. I’m sure there is some company out there doing that — and I’d love to hear of any you may know of — but I’ve been around long enough that you think I would have heard of one by now.

I’m ready and willing to have my mind changed, but to me, exit interviews are just a complete and total waste of time.

John Hollon is managing editor of Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. He's also the former founding editor of TLNT and a frequent contributor to ERE and the Fistful of Talent blog.