In The Workplace

I understand that you’re against the exit interview of resigned employees. There are thousands of organizations and hundreds of human resource (HR) managers that are still using the exit interview. How could they be wrong? Please convince me. — White Space.

There could be hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people and organizations who believe in the validity of exit interviews. However, it doesn’t mean they’re correct and I’m wrong. Recently, a past president of the People Management Association of the Philippines challenged my position on this topic.

He said in so many words that an exit interview is still valuable if management knows how to ask the right questions. As one diehard believer in exit interviews puts it, any issues the exiting employee may have encountered can be surfaced and possibly resolved by formulating “objective” questions designed to ferret out the truth.

Fine! But that’s missing the point. The fact remains that every manager who does the exit interview is reacting to a resignation that might no longer be reversed. The employee may have already accepted a lucrative job offer somewhere. Why spend so much time on what a disgruntled worker thinks?

In psychology, such a phenomenon is called “cognitive dissonance,” first described in 1957 by cognitive psychologist Leon Festinger (1919-1989). People will remain defiant and stubbornly refuse to change their minds because they don’t want to accept they’re wrong.

In her research, American journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Kolbert (b. 1961) claims that we are focused on “winning arguments than with thinking straight.” In her 2017 article in The New Yorker, “Why Facts Don’t Change our Minds,” she points to new findings about the human mind suggesting the limitations of reason.

Kolbert cited the role of “confirmation bias,” which is “the tendency (of) people… to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them.”

Like you and me, I’m guilty of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias. I used to believe in exit interviews in my past corporate life because my bosses in traditional HR forced me to do it. I was a good soldier following an old system despite the fact that we often scoffed, if not belittled employee feedback. Now, let me explain why I dislike exit interviews, and decide for yourself:

One, an exit interview is a reactive communication tool. No matter what you do, even when you use using the most objective questions and framing it in the best way possible, management can’t paper over the fact that such an approach is too little, too late. The million-dollar question is, why wait for an exit interview when management would be better talking to the workers long before they think of resigning.

Two, it’s the opinion of a few disgruntled workers. When people rant against their bosses or the organization, their feedback is contaminated by emotion. No matter how valid the complaints are, their outlook is not shared by the majority of employees, whose views can be determined objectively through an anonymous morale survey.

Three, resigned employees are focused on their honorable dismissal. Some people are willing to vent their anger, but reasonable people would rather not rock the boat. That’s because they’re focused on the immediate release of their terminal pay, clearance, and employment certificate.

Four, reasonable resigned workers don’t burn bridges. That’s in the hope of getting favorable feedback from their bosses when a new employer conducts its background investigation. There’s no point of burning bridges. Whatever the circumstances, it’s best to maintain positive ties with former employers.

Five, some resigned workers are anxious about their future. In relation to number four, it’s best to maintain good relations with former bosses. What’s the point of badmouthing them in an exit interview? There is always the possibility they will return as “boomerang” employees should their expectations not be met by their new employer.

Last, an exit interview creates the temptation to make a counter-offer. Even then, it’s not a good idea to offer resigned employees extra pay and perks to stay. It’s a bad precedent. Besides, such an offer, if accepted, would not look good in the eyes of other workers eyeing the post due to be vacated. A counter-offer would create more problems for management.

The best alternative to exit interviews is the “stay” interview, which we can call the kumustahan approach. Sometimes, it’s known as the motivational interview, part of an organization’s proactive two-way communication process performed primarily by line executives and other people managers with their direct reports.

It’s better than an exit interview because managers can do it any time, without formality. The HR department need not be involved in the process. The “stay” interview can take place whenever the boss sees fit during unguarded moments to explore questions like: Is there anything I can do remove obstacles that hinder you in your job?

Also: What are the things you need from me or the company? What kind of resources do you need? Am I giving you the right amount of coaching? What are your career goals? How can I help you achieve them? How can I help you succeed in this organization? What kind of job assignments would you like to try?

This list of discussion starters with the workers is incomplete. You can devise your own depending on how you see the work relationship. The bottom line is — don’t be reactive with people. Be several steps ahead with the workers. And treat them well along the way.

If you still want to cling to the exit interview, then do it six months after the resignation date and when they have already settled into the other organization. Send the exit interview form by e-mail or through the employee’s social media account. That way, they can give you better, more sober feedback. Whatever you do, be diplomatic. It’s a small world.


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