In August almost 4.3 million people quit their jobs, setting a new record. But that record only held a month. Just-released numbers show even more people quit in September, a total of 4.4. million. The Great Resignation is not only not ending, it appears to be picking up steam.
Which means that despite their best efforts, many businesses are going to lose good people in the coming months. Should companies send them on their way with an exit interview?
Not everyone is a huge fan of sitting down with soon-to-be ex-employees for a heart to heart. Former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo famously likened the feedback you receive to that famed breakup cliché, “It’s not you, it’s me.”
He has a point. While the idea of picking the brains of departing employees for brutally honest feedback sounds logical, humans don’t like delivering unpleasant truths. And the reasons a valued employee is almost always unpleasant for a company to hear. The result is sit downs that often devolve into generalities, small talk, and white lies. Answers along those lines might spare your feelings but they’re neither honest not actionable.
So how can you wring actually useful insights to help you improve from employees on their way out the door? Experts and experienced leaders have a few ideas.
1. Why did you come to work here?
Almost every interview is fundamentally asking the same question — Why are you leaving — but Dean Carter, the head of HR at Patagonia, the outdoor gear company with famously low turnover, suggests bosses turn this question on its head.
“My first question is not ‘Why did you leave?’ I ask ‘Why did you join? What compelled you to come to Patagonia, to leave your other job, or your family, or whatever it was?'” he told a 2019 conference audience. “After that it’s, ‘Did we do that?” ‘What was the experience we delivered for you?” ‘Where was the difference in that?'”
This frames the conversation as a matter of fit and missed opportunities, rather than blame and disappointment, which encourages the departing employee to be more forthright about their experience at the company.
2. What were your greatest accomplishments and greatest challenges?
Anna Oakes, Quartz’s head of people, offers a related tip on keeping the conversation non-confrontational.
“I would encourage it to be a dialogue about the highs and lows of the job, rather than focusing on the end point,” she advises, suggesting questions like, “What are you most proud of? What are the accomplishments that you were writing on your resume about this job? And what were some of the challenges you had to overcome that you’ve learned from?”
This more positive spin isn’t just to spare people’s feelings. It’s a way around our natural reluctance to deliver negative feedback and can spur “a tremendous amount of feedback to the manager,” according to Oakes.
3. Do you have a suggestion for how to fix that?
In a classic HBR article on how to conduct an exit interview, a West Point colonel and Harvard Business School professor recommend interviewers avoid defensiveness and refrain from offering possible fixes for any issues raised by the employee. Instead, let the interviewee vent, but push them gently to suggest possible solutions.
“If a departing employee says that the company requires too many signatures for contract approval, a skilled interviewer will ask him or her to recommend a solution,” they offer as an example.
4. How do you colleagues feel about working here?
If a child is hurt or upset and reluctant to talk about it, you can sometimes make progress by asking how his or her doll or stuffed animal feels. The child might not want to admit she’s frightened, but she’s happy to tell you Dolly is absolutely terrified about that trip to the dentist tomorrow. It’s easier to talk about other people’s feelings than our own.
We grow up, but this basic psychological truth doesn’t change, and the HBR article suggests those conducting exit interviews can use that truth to their advantage.
“Sometimes interviewers ask departing employees how their colleagues feel about their work, because someone who’s reluctant to offer a candid opinion might be comfortable ascribing his or her feelings to coworkers. Regardless of whose feelings are shared, useful insights may result,” the authors write.
5. What skills and qualifications do you think we need to look for in your replacement?
Here are two truths: one, no one understands what it takes to do a job well better than the person who is currently doing it well. And two, research shows companies are pretty terrible at writing accurate, useful job descriptions.
Combine these two realities and what do you get? A strong case for asking your departing employee for some advice on how to hire their replacement. Which is why the Muse suggests the question above for exit interviews.