They have a solid theoretical basis, but are the people involved in exit interviews looking for answers or a personally satisfying conclusion?
Ah, exit interviews. They’re filled with potential but they can also be emotional, difficult to read and sometimes downright surly. They are the teenager of HR functions. Unlike teenagers however, we get to decide whether they are worth the effort.
The research on their effectiveness has been decidedly mixed, with some studies suggesting that they are pretty much useless (at least in some sectors). Other studies land somewhere in the middle. This 2016 publication by researchers from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Exploring the behavioural options of exit and voice in the exit interview process, is one of those.
It neatly describes the perceived benefits of exit interviews. As described by the study, there are two schools of thought regarding their business value. Strategic HR management theory sees it as a practical tool for analysing employee turnover. Organisational behaviorists see something more profound – a method for further understanding staff motivation, turnover, engagement and overall behaviour.
Something the researchers seem to observe, but don’t comment on, is that exit interviews have an objective that is, at best, tangentially related to their stated aim – ending a staff member’s tenure on a note of mutual affection. This is interesting, because while that’s important in the sense that you should encourage boomerang employees and protect your employer brand, an exit interview that aims at emotional validation hamstrings every other outcome it’s supposed to have.
Four reactions to dissatisfaction
If you are going to study exit interviews you need to know what you’re looking for. So the UTS researchers make use of a previously established model for understanding dissatisfied employees called Exit-Voice-Loyalty-Neglect (EVLN) in their analysis.
Each word describes the four ways employees express their negative feelings about their employer. They either quit (exit), tell you what’s wrong (voice), choose to support you anyway (loyalty), or they do nothing and let their negative feelings spiral to the point of no return (neglect).
The study’s authors chose it because it has an obvious tie-in with exit interviews. Because what are they if not an attempt to turn the completely negative exit into the much more worthwhile voice?
The issue is that an employee who wants to express dissatisfaction and remain in the organisation is someone who believes things can change for the better and is at least somewhat interested in being part of that change. Someone who has decided to quit is much less likely to have either of those qualities.
Nature of the research
It’s important to note that this was a qualitative study of a single organisation. It involved the researchers conducting semi-structured interviews with ten departing employees (five female and five male), observation of the HR professionals as they carried out the actual exit interviews of said employees, semi-structured interviews with the same HR professionals, and a follow-up telephone interview with everyone two weeks after the employees had left.
The way the company handled their exit interviews is typical. A one hour private meeting was set up in the final days of a leaving employee’s tenure and the HR professional prepared by reviewing all relevant information (performance reviews, memos, and so on). The interview itself involved predetermined questions (both open and closed-ended) and follow-up questions.
The researchers also note that the “meetings are almost always finished on a positive and uplifting note”. They don’t comment further on this fact, but it deserves further comment. While it makes perfect sense that humans would seek to say goodbye in a spirit of mutual affection, this is an exit interview and not the company farewell. Its practical purpose is to uncover dissatisfaction. Trying to finish on an “uplifting note” seems like it might harm that purpose.
Why people don’t tell the truth
If you asked a random person why someone being exit interviewed wouldn’t be honest they would most likely answer because they didn’t want to burn any bridges. In the UTS study, 100 per cent of the ex-employees gave the same reason in their follow-up phone conversations. In fact, one interviewee “commented on how he was hoping for his manger to act as his referee and was therefore not about to make any comments that could put this in jeopardy.”
But there were other reasons they weren’t forthcoming:
- They expressed a concern that remaining co-workers would be impacted by what they said. “The value of these relationships seemed to far outweigh the value of providing the organisation with information that may be used, as one female employee put it, to ‘exact retribution’.”
- Two interviewees, one of whom was a supervisor who had been with the company for four years, felt the process was a ‘useless formality’.
- One interviewee hoped to return to the company.
- The researchers also speculated that the employees who are leaving could have low motivation, and instead feel that any changes are the responsibility of their remaining co-workers and/or organisation.
Despite all this, the researchers report that seven out of 10 employees felt the exit interview was “an effective means to voice complaints and offer constructive criticism. The general sentiments were that they (the terminating employee) were able be reveal a lot about the programs and policies that existed, and about the working environment than a remaining employee as they could speak more candidly.”
The HR professionals “shared this viewpoint” and “the general consensus was that the exit interview process provided HR with a valuable opportunity to not only discuss and clarify an employee’s overall level of satisfaction but to also find out the real reasons behind their decision to terminate.”
Though HR felt this way, the researchers observed that the only data that was being used was the primary and secondary reasons the employee gave for quitting. Also “despite the perceived benefit of the information being collected, actual changes in organisational policies and/or work procedures as a direct result of the information obtained, was negligible.”
Let’s restate this because it’s really kind of odd. The employees admitted that they were intentionally distorting information, the HR professionals spent an hour interviewing but only made use of two very basic data points, and no actual changes were made. Yet for some reason almost everyone felt it was a worthwhile exercise. Why?
This really does smack of an emotional experience dressed up as a business exercise. How else do you describe something that feels good to most but doesn’t move the needle?
The researchers seem to feel the same way, even if they don’t come to that exact same conclusion. Here’s the killer line – it’s about as close as academics get to snark (in a research paper anyway): “The reality was that a large amount of time and effort was being put into the administration of the exit interview process rather than analysing the data.”
They’re right when they say that the lesson for HR is that more and better use of the data is crucial. But it might also be important to analyse the motivations behind conducting and engaging interviews – for both the individuals involved and the organisation. Because while it’s a genuinely great thing to end a business relationship on a high note, you don’t need an exit interview to do that. A warm and fuzzy goodbye won’t fix your turnover problem.
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