A US man has received international attention for his furious exit interview – the last thing any organisation wants to become known for. Is he just a cranky former member of staff leaving with a rant or is there more to it? And what should HR do if confronted with a similar situation?
You’re conducting an exit interview with a manager who has worked with you for 35 years. Given his long service, you consider any input he might have important. Of course you let him know he should be honest in the questionnaire. But he takes it a step further – he’s brutal. He doesn’t so much give recommendations as pen a tirade so scathing it takes your breath away. And he doesn’t just hand it to you – he emails it to the whole organisation. This isn’t fiction, it happened in Pennsylvania. It must’ve been a horrifying day for the HR department. And that was before the story went viral.
There are online exit interview guides for employees that stress honesty is a terrible policy. The thinking is that no one will listen anyway, the employee will be perceived as untrustworthy and bitter, and it could damage their career. But for many, doing the exact opposite fulfils a fantasy: that of the maligned employee deciding they’re going to cut loose and tell everyone precisely how they feel, piercing all listeners with insight nobody cared for before, and anger they’ve been forced to suppress for years.
As portrayed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pennsylvanian employee, Michael Stuban, certainly seems proud of his email. He called his old organisation, the Pennsylvania Turnpike commission, “rudderless” and told its executives they were “out of touch” and claimed “Jobs/Promotions are filled by the politicians, it’s who you know, not what you know”.
For their part the organisation wasn’t impressed. Its Chairman responded with a sharp reply-all: “Mr. Stuban . . . I don’t believe we ever met, and after reading your Exit Questionnaire, I am grateful that we didn’t.”
We may never know whether this was an HR failure, an organisational failure, or whether Stuban was alone in his passionate negativity about the Commission. But did his email blast help?
“It’s really selfish and it’s not going to have any positive impact,”says Karen Gately, human resources consultant and author of The People Manager’s Toolkit. “In these kinds of situations honesty is powerful only when it’s delivered with sensitivity and positivity. He’s not helping his employer, he’s not helping his colleagues, and he’s not helping himself.”
The organisational gut-reaction to such negativity can be to close ranks and to disregard the ex-employee – this seems to have been the response of the Chairman. But this might not be best practice. Here are some ideas for handling a horrible exit interview:
A company with an HR department that has established the appropriate systems has their finger on the pulse, Karen says, and is aware when employees are disgruntled, and why. Nobody feels they can’t talk about legitimate problems so an exit interview surprise shouldn’t be likely.
2. A well run exit interview
Conduct exit interviews that ease employees out of the organisation the right way. Check out our guide from earlier this year.
3. Dealing with the fallout
Sometimes a situation like Stuban’s wrathful email will happen despite your best efforts. If it does, there is no point in pretending it didn’t. Instead, organise with management to talk about it with everyone. “Make sure everyone invests face-time in this problem so you can say, ‘let’s learn from this experience,’” Karen recommends.
Investigate and see if it was just the final words of a bitter person or whether his feelings are more widely held. If it’s the latter, the exit interview can be a springboard to addressing organisational problems, clearing bad air, and moving toward a brighter future.
For more information on how to handle an employee’s exit from your organisation, including an exit interview form and a departure list, go to the AHRI assist webpage on the topic.