Exit Interviews: The 2nd Most Worthless Activity HR Has to Handle

Let’s be clear, the most useless HR activity is Performance Management. Hands down.

But since I have been an enthusiastic beater of that horse already, a close second has to be the Exit Interview.

Let’s review all of the reasons for their sacred cow status:

  • Good, actionable data on why people are leaving;
  • Closure for employees;
  • Risk mitigation for the company;
  • Goodwill and future employee referrals;
  • Knighted as one of the “Best Practices” by people who know things.

News flash: Employees hate exit interviews

Just like with Performance Management, the intent is good. Those are all valid objectives.

Still, there is no evidence that any of those are achieved through the prevalent processes. And most importantly, employees hate them. If they are reviled, then the chances for good, actionable data, closure, and goodwill are nil.

Let’s look at it from the employee view.

An HR rep, whom you may have met at your orientation 18 years ago, wants to go over a checklist and ask some questions about why you’re leaving. She’s taking notes. Suspicious.

As an employee, I’m wondering why no one bothered to ask me these questions over the past 18 years? It’s a little insulting to be asked why I’m leaving for the sake of good data and action planning. Is the implication that I was expendable, but heaven forbid anyone else ever fall victim to a bad manager and lack of recognition?

Why not an exit conversation?

She’s taking notes, so I’m sure not going to say what I really think, if I know what’s good for me. It’s my last day and all they want is my badge and to squeeze information out of me. Where’s my goodbye cake?

Instead of an exit interview, how about an exit conversation? It’s not the idea that’s broken, it’s the focus.

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If you haven’t been asking your employees why they stay and what would keep them at least once a year, you’ve missed the point. Then an exit interview is just an awkward gesture of too little, too late. Nobody’s reason for leaving should ever be a surprise. If you want the data, use an exit survey that is confidential and preferably after they have left and had proper time to reflect. But only do this if you are actually going to take action on the data provided.

Why a “conversation” is a better approach

The exit conversation should not be conducted by HR. The exit check-out process and benefits information can be cold and clinical and handled by HR, but the conversation should be with someone of consequence in that employee’s career.

There is nothing sadder than handing in your badge and computer and walking out the door unnoticed.

So, if the exit conversation is not about the data and not about the check-out process, it needs to be about the employee and their contribution – a thank you, a celebration, an acknowledgment; a chance to reflect and offer feedback.

Now that doesn’t sound so worthless, does it?

This was originally published on PeopleResult’s Current blog.

Barbara Milhizer, CCP, SPHR is a partner at PeopleResults, a human capital consultancy focusing on change, organization, talent and communications/new media. Barbara’s background includes over 15 years of HR with key leadership roles in rewards & recognition and talent strategy at both Accenture and PeopleResults. Contact her at bmilhizer@people-results.com.


28 Comments on “Exit Interviews: The 2nd Most Worthless Activity HR Has to Handle

    1. There is valuable data and information in exit interviews. It maybe too little too late for that individual employee but what you learn from that exit interview may be used to prevent similar or repeating “issues” that can only come to light when an employee is free to speak their mind without possibility of punishment or discipline.

      1. I agree that data is valuable to the extent it’s good data and you plan to use it. In my experience running this function for a large organization where we did both a survey and interview, there was very little correlation between the 2 for reasons for leaving. Bad data leads to misinformed action planning even if you have the best intentions.

      2. I agree with Marta Steele. Yes, exit interviews can be a learning moment for the employer but more often than not, the data and personal information either goes unnoticed or uncared about. In my 15 years of HR experience, none of my HR bosses ever did anything about something they learned on an exit interview. They are indeed worthless as they stand now.

      3. I’m chuckling at the claim. Not that it isn’t true, but rather that it doesn’t matter. If the employee only fees safe to vent on the way out the door, then it’s clear that he perceives HR wasn’t going to do anything with the information anyway. Right?

        But the claim that the employee is safe from punishment on the way out of the door is incorrect. If he ever decides to work for the firm again, in another department, HR will pull out his negative comments from the file and show them to the new management. Instead of his remarks being taken as honest feedback, he’ll be labeled a troublemaker and not hired.

        Consequently, most smart employees will only say nice things while going out the door and this leads to a false sense of security. Since most exit interviews are positive, that must mean things are going well.

  1. You’re right – they’re too late for that employee and does anyone really think that someone learns from the ‘data’ that gets collected? Far too many companies may indeed collect data, but acting on it is a rare occurrance…

  2. Most employees know that their company is only conducting these interviews to make sure there’s no actionable issue that they could be sued for. Personally, if I’m leaving because the company was awful, then I have as much interest in helping them at the end as they had for me at any time during my tenure.

  3. Nice piece Barbara but I disagree with your premise. I think that both exit interviews and performance reviews are only as effective as the people who perform them. If they are doing a lackluster job then they too should go.

    1. I don’t disagree with them in principle. I disagree with their focus. As they are conducted in most organizations, there is very little benefit for the time and resources invested.

  4. Just because something isn’t done properly, doesn’t make it worthless. Do we avoid driving cars because many are involved in accidents? Exit interviews do provide information that may not come up during any other forum. They also provide the opportunity to see if there is a pattern as to why people are leaving. If the information is not being followed up on, then I would question the value of the HR department and the degree of credibility and influence it has, not the concept of exit interviews themselves. I do agree that feedback should also be obtained thoughout the year as a matter of course.

    1. Agree with the gathering data part, but argue that the exit interview is the place to do it or yields anything worthwhile.

    2. ” Do we avoid driving cars because many are involved in accidents?”

      Strawman. The author’s main point is that the information gained is not good.

  5. Another article with a sensational title, yet with little to no substance. If you wants to discuss a management practice validity in the future, please back it with hard data and measurements. Reading this article, it feels more like an empirical report on “why I hate to handle exit interviews”, rather than the result of methodical analysis of data and facts. I understand that it does not discuss the relevance of the process, but more the form that the process takes. The article should then be titled, “Exit Interviews: 2 Reasons why HR should not be involved”.

    1. If every article had to be an “empirical report” with a “methodical analysis of data and facts” then very, very little would ever be written or published.

      This article has generated a good discussion, which is the point. And, the title is designed to get people reading and to join the discussion.

      It seems to have worked well. It pulled you in to make a comment, didn’t it?

    2. This is my experience leading this function for a large organization. We conducted exit interviews and surveys, and there was very little correlation between the 2. Google “exit interview” and see what you get — a list of best practices mirroring the current accepted state and a harangue from employees on why they hate them and don’t answer truthfully. I consider that a disconnect worthy of discussion.

  6. Preach it, Barbara! You and I are so aligned on this Performance Management and Exit Interview thing, it’s scary. I’ve maintained for years that ‘exit interviews are only as good as what you do with the data’ and sadly enough, most organizations don’t do squat with the data. It’s typically an HR Generalist or entry-level coordinator completing a checklist that oftentimes gets filed away in a drawer somewhere. Furthermore, I really don’t think there’s much substantive data that comes from an exit interview. At that point (lemme guess…4:45p on a Friday afternoon…as the departing employee is itching to get out of the building to join their friends at the nearby watering hole for a celebratory send off), you’re not going to get much “useful” information from the employee. They want to answer the questions as innocuously as they can, as quickly as they can. Just my experience.

    I do agree that organizations are likely to get more candid, meaningful information after the fact via some neutral party (e.g. online survey, etc.). I’m not suggesting that exit interviews, in and of themselves, are bad or wrong. Just like the traditional, annual performance review, it’s time to think and act differently about how we do these things and get useful information. Just seems to me that if you’re asking someone about their time with the organization as they’re leaving, you’re a day late and a dollar short.

  7. Interesting article. If the exit conversation/interview isn’t done by HR who should do it? The employees manager? A senior leader in the org?

    1. In my experience, it’s most effective to have a neutral person asking the questions. That could be an online survey, a third party, etc. It brings us back to the original question – how effective is it, really, if the departing employee isn’t comfortable and/or willing to let the organization know how they really feel? Seems like organizations could be putting a lot of time, money and energy into data that’s not entirely valid.

  8. Delay exit interviews for at least 6 months from the time of departure. Give enough time to think about it and to determine if there are legal issues to be considered besides the ability to be more candid and objective depending on if it being a good or bad company to work for. Also provides time to see how they reacted after your departure. There have been organizations that have fallen on their faces after a key person in a specialized function has departed.

      1. Three obvious advantages are (a) it allows time for both parties to cool off, (b) it reduces the belief that ‘the grass is greener on the other side of the fence’ and (c) it will make the ex-employee feel better, because this wasn’t another item on a checklist to be done on the way out the door.

        And if you feel that the ex-employee was a genuine loss, it’s a chance at courting them.

  9. Exit interview is a vital task concerning the HR manager , I consider it so. it neither a routin work, nor a waste of time.Based on that interview we can know well and analize the drowbacks and weak points in the amnagerial system in the organization. resigned Employee is a red mark in most cases that the organization has lost the element of Employee Engagement, and its Employees have lost the element of Belonging & Loyalty to it, moreover , applying the right principles of Leadeship also are lost in that organization.

    1. That’s only true if you are getting good data, and my argument (and experience) is that you are not.

  10. Does HR ever do anything with the exit interview? I’ve seen multiple people in the same position for the same manager leave and they have said the same thing “I’d stay if I didn’t have to work for the manager”. Does losing 3 employees with less than 1 year in the job worth keeping the manager when their is a pattern?

  11. Very few companies r working and worried abt out flow of employees.Now a day even the canadiates going for interview also review the portfolio of companies particlarly that how much is lay off.May b nt the fresh graduates but the middle senior and above do consider this.
    If v categorized the pevotial role of Hr department hardly 5 to 7 percent Hr department work on the said subject Why people r leaving; wht r the factors comple to make the person leave on which lot of investment by company had incurred. HR ROLE is like a mother to make the home intact other wise home will turn in to house.

  12. In my opinion, exit interviews only benefit the employer, for liability reasons. As a manager I always had an open door policy, I will notice employees performance, absences, behaviors etc, whenever I observed changes, I would have a friendly talk, to find out what was bothering this employee. Sometimes was a personal problem, sometimes was something related to the work itself, but my point is, if a leader really cares about their employees, they need to apply the open door policy, to allow the employees to speak what ever is on their mind.
    the other point I would like to make is, that I don’t believe that employers are proactive with the feed back from exit interviews, the problem don’t get fix. The other thing the leaders should be looking closely is why their company is having such a high turn over? Maybe a change of leader perhaps?

  13. AKA “we are here to justify our useless, parasitic existence because we know you will play along if you like your own future” Hmm, yeah.

    Speaking of HR I had no less than THREE interviewers interviewing me for a <2 months basic data entry temp job on which they didn't know what the job is exactly about. Apparently they needed that many people to tell me about the expected work attire. Please tell me why are these bunch of idiots still getting paid again?

  14. I feel the same way, so what I did is change the exit interview process to: On day employee is leaving we celebrate his/her time with the company, wish her/him the best, and confirm we have their current contact information. We let them know in advance that we will be contacting them in six months to see how things are going (this allows us to get the “grass is greener” employees back), and if the departing employee is happy in their new role, we now (that they are happily and firmly ensconced in their new role) for constructive feedback as to why they left. Since the employee is no longer worried about “Burning a bridge,” we often get some solid feedback this way.

  15. Selfishly I love feedback. In fact, I requested an exit conversation from my current management today.

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