Before you leave

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By Tony Samson

MANAGEMENT wants to understand why employees leave, especially when the resignation is voluntary and not forced. (Did you not like the cafeteria food?) The exit interview is designed to draw out the motives behind a departure not reflected in a dry, maybe angry, resignation letter, sometimes just one sentence long. It is supposed to guide management on gaps in its retention policy.

There is a need to discover extraneous reasons for resignations like migration plans to Vancouver or the call of a family business or health problems like ulcers and a high level of bad cholesterol (LDL). Joining a competitor rings different bells and is never disclosed anyway — I’ll just take a break and write my memoir. You’re in it as a villain.

Is there still need to interview targets of a redundancy program? After all, their fingers hanging precariously on the ledge were stomped quite vigorously to allow gravity to do its work — do you feel a light breeze on your hair?

There is still need for a chat to give even the reluctant emigrant a chance to get things off his chest. While not expected to sing the praises of a boss that is checking his soles for any skin bits, the resignee may still offer some useful observations regarding the shuttle service and the location of the lockers. A disgruntled person is expected to dwell on unflattering profiles of at least two layers of management above him — they send text messages even on weekends. There is no need to argue, only to nod and show that one has not fallen asleep.

The exit interview provides an opportunity to explain the reasons for a headcount reduction (including the interviewee’s), without having to resort to a power point presentation on industry disruptions. (Every company is switching to robots.)

Emphasis on the pain of the process softens the emotional blow. (We really wanted a place for a whiner like you in our organization but we already hit our quota.) The small investment in time, though unpleasant and tiring, can reduce, but not eliminate, the bad-mouthing of the company afterwards. (They convinced me on how worthless I was.)

It is important not to go overboard in assuring an outgoing executive of the company’s continuing affection. Phrases to avoid include the following: a.) Let us know what we can do for you; b.) Come back to us when we have an opening; c.) Our doors will always be open to you; and d.) Let’s have lunch sometime. While such expressions of goodwill engender a pleasant atmosphere, the implied assurance to provide help in the future may be taken literally. This will only lead to feelings of betrayal when the endearments are followed up by text messages — my next six months are fully booked for lunch.

It is fine to inquire what the resignee plans to do next. This conversation is not an eagerness to acquire information for future use. It’s just a way of filling up the designated time. Maybe, the interviewer is texting while the interviewee is giving his mental slide presentation on the prospects of mango growing in his province. The texter across him is nodding his head — I’m winding up here. Go ahead and take a shower.

The ideal occasion for an exit interview is when the settlement check is ready to be handed over, especially if this is generous. Whatever pain the unexpected firing has engendered is assuaged by money. (Don’t spend it all on a yacht.)

The tradition of offering consoling words for the record must have come from executions. (Any requests for a last meal?) As in corporate exit interviews, the feeling of being unfairly sentenced is expressed — I’m innocent of the crime. This last appeal is made even as the firing squads are adjusting their safety pins.

Last words are often dramatic and memorable. In Good Friday celebrations, long homilies are devoted to each of the seven phrases. Still, even in that traditional episode of redemption, the final phrase is plain and to-the-point “consumatum est,” it is finished.

Maybe corporate exits should emulate this verbal simplicity for moving on. Since the exit interview, so unpleasant for both sides, just needs to take place, it is best to strip it of melodrama. When asked for any last words, a nonchalant, though not disrespectful, statement will suffice — can I have the check now?


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.