Hiring Wisdom: Why Exit Interviews Are Pretty Much a Waste of Time

Illustration by istockphoto.com
Illustration by istockphoto.com

For the most part, exit interviews are useless.

The information you gain will do nothing to help you retain that person (or anyone else) because people who are leaving have no reason to tell you the truth and they, wisely, don’t want to burn any bridges.

That’s why I strongly recommend you skip the exit interview drill and start conducting “Stay with Us” employee retention interviews with your A-players every three-to-six months instead.

If you do lose an A-player, call that former employee toward the end of their second week on the new job to see how things are going. Tell them they are missed and that, if things are not working out as expected, you would like to have them back on the team.

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You will be amazed how many of these people find out the grass isn’t greener after all.

This was originally published on Mel Kleiman’s Humetrics blog

Mel Kleiman, CSP, is an internationally-known authority on recruiting, selecting, and hiring hourly employees. He has been the president of Humetrics since 1976 and has over 30 years of practical experience, research, consulting and professional speaking work to his credit. Contact him at mkleiman@humetrics.com.


11 Comments on “Hiring Wisdom: Why Exit Interviews Are Pretty Much a Waste of Time

  1. I agree, Mel. You will really never gain any useful information from an exit interview. I like your idea to contact your lost A-players a couple weeks after they’ve left, however.

  2. We run a fair number of exit interviews. Our data doesn’t reflect this.

    There is definitely an aspect of avoiding “bridge burning”. However, you are assuming that the only point of exit interviews is to retain employees. This is a part, but it’s not the only part.

    Many employees find exit interviews a form of catharsis. And whilst there may be cases where they obscure their reasons for leaving, they will often be (more) honest about other aspects of the organization. A semi-structured interview is essential here.

    Plus, I’d argue it’s good form. Not asking why an employee is leaving seems borderline rude. If you’d like the employee back, you’d think you’d want to (a) ask and (b) demonstrate you take their feedback seriously.

    1. I’ve been involved in a great many exit interviews in many years of managing people, and rarely have I found anything of real value coming from one.

      Smart employees calculate — and not without good reason — that little will come from saying what they really think as they are headed out the door. There is zero upside for them to be frank, and little reason for them to believe that their soon-to-be-former employer will do much with what they tell them if they were anyway.

      Keeping your mouth shut and not burning any bridges is what most thinking people do. I was counseled to do that when i left my first full-time job many years ago, and it was good, pragmatic advice then as it is now.

      I’m with Mel on this. Exit interviews are a broken HR practice where everyone goes through the motions and little comes from the exercise. Yes, there may be a few organizations out there that believe they have value and truly listen to the departing employees, but they are the exception, not the rule.

      Focusing on listening to your employees when it really matters — before they decide to go — is the smart thing to do, and where the really focus should be.

      1. I can’t disagree that you should be listening to your employees.

        However, if people are so worried about “burning their bridges” in an exit interview – how does that bode for communication while they are still at the company?

        If they worry that raising an issue might prejudice them when they are leaving, what are the chances they’ll raise it ever? Sounds like communication is broken in general, not just during the exit.

        However, you’re assuming a lot. You’re assuming that employees are leaving because of some kind of disagreement – or the employees is moving elsewhere.

        Employees leave for a lot of reasons. Family, retirement, study, travel.

        If you’re not politely asking them why, you’ll never know. Personally I’d find a company that didn’t even bother unprofessional.

  3. I agree with Jon. We ‘d better ask the leaving employees why they want to quit, and show our concern toward them. It is worth doing because they may possibly be our customers.

  4. “Stay with us” interviews are an interesting and proactive aporoach. However, you may run the risk of potentially alienating the “B-listers”, if you will. People talk—word gets around. Possibly introduce differnt-style, segmented interviews, catering to your varying types of performers, with the goal, of course, to make them A-listers, too. That would be good management. And your retention rate would be, I suspect, pretty healthy. And if you’re lucky, combining these interviews with successful stay-with-us interviews, you may end up with a complete A-lister organization. Wow! Does that even exist?

    Anyway, the stay-with-us aporoach can get pretty political, especially when staff talk and some learn of their exclusion. As a result, albeit unintentional, you create a company or department morale that’s downward-spiraling. It’s an interesting approach, but much care and planning has to go into it to avoid what would become an even bigger headache—an paradox, in fact: A widerspread non-A-list organization.

    1. What about that company who routinely ‘cuts’ ie: fires the bottom 10% of its employees every 6 months? Can’t remember the name; some Fortune 100 company. They would obviously strive for all A-listers. But really… who would want to work there? The stress/pressure would be too intense for me.

      Isn’t a job supposed to allow you to make money to live the life you want not BE your life?

  5. If you’re looking at exit interviews as a way to retain the departing employee, you’re doing it wrong. I see it as a time to get open feedback about how we can be better, and with the exception of one or two dramatic departures where the employee refused to do one, I’ve always gotten insight and useful info from both the exit questionnaire and the discussion afterwards. If you foster a culture of open, honest feedback, people shouldn’t be worried that theirs will burn a bridge. There are always outliers, but I remain convinced that opening the door for honest feedback is crucial to understanding attrition and improving your company.

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