Exit Interviews? They’re Simply Too Little, Too Late

John Hollon Bad HR, Organizational Development

Here’s a truism you can take to the bank: Bad ideas never seem to go away.

How do I know? Well, it’s because with all the big workplace issues that are front and center today — like should you bring people back to the office, the remote vs. hybrid debate, or where to find workers for jobs you can’t fill — The Wall Street Journal last week decided to write about … exit interviews???

You just can’t make this stuff up.

In How Honest Should You Be in Your Exit Interview?America’s pre-eminent business publication, jumped into the topic like this:

“Millions of people have quit their jobs this year, and many more are expected to join them.

The wave of resignations has presented a quandary for workers headed for the exits — namely, how honest to be with their soon-to-be-former employers about why they are leaving, where they are going and what is happening inside the organization.

In interviews with more than a dozen workers who recently quit their jobs, some said their former employers seemed acutely aware of burnout issues and wanted to know how to be better bosses. A few said their exit interviews seemed perfunctory, as though human-resources personnel were going through the motions.”

One word in those three paragraphs jumps out — perfunctory.

The futility of Exit Interviews

It’s defined in the Cambridge Dictionary as “done quickly, without taking care or interest.” But the Urban Dictionary gets to the crux of it, saying perfunctory “means to do something without any real interest, effort or feeling. If you do something merely to get it over and done with then that is perfunctory. If it’s something you’ve done that you don’t give a shit about, then that’s perfunctory. Indifferent, apathetic, perfunctory, three ways of saying the same thing.”

Could there be a better way to describe an Exit Interview?

I’ve written about the futility of Exit Interviews  — I once asked How Can We Make Them More Than Just a Waste of Time? — and my friend and Fistful of Talent Grand Poohbah Kris Dunn wrote about the topic a few times over at his HR Capitalist blog, including one memorable post titled More Proof That Exit Interviews Do More Harm Than Good.

I was introduced to the futility of Exit Interviews when I was getting ready to quit my very first professional job years ago at the late, great Los Angeles Herald Examiner. When I was getting ready to see the HR Director for my exit discussion, one of the editors pulled me aside with a warning — no good could possibly come from being frank and forthright in my Exit Interview. It’s better, he said, to smile a lot and say little.

That was great advice I’ve never forgotten, and in all my years managing people, I have never met anyone foolish enough to say much worth remembering at an Exit Interview.

This begs the question nobody seems able to answer: Why do we still do Exit Interviews if most everyone has been coached to dummy up when they have one?

And what does anyone — especially HR and the management team — get from interviewing soon-to-be-former employees with one foot out the door who know better than to say much anyway?

If someone can show me an organization that has actually gathered solid insights from departing employees, I would LOVE to know about it. My guess is that there may be a few outliers somewhere who had moderate success with Exit Interviews, but if so, they are the exception to the rule.

But The Wall Street Journal story on How Honest Should You Be in Your Exit Interview? also made me wonder: given the chaotic nature of today’s American workforce, why in hell is ANYONE spending time on Exit Interviews, or talking to the media about them as if they are some cutting edge talent management practice?

Departing people don’t want to burn bridges

Here’s my take: I’m a big fan of the WSJ, but to my trained eye, the Journal’s workplace and talent management coverage is frequently lacking — and writing about Exit Interviews, particularly given the huge challenges of today’s working world, is a perfect example of that.

Yes, even good journalists write some really stupid stuff.

However, there was one observation at the end of the Journal article, by Just Work CEO Trier Bryant, that made the very point about Exit Interviews that I’m getting at:

“Most people switch jobs several times during their careers. Even when an employee has complicated feelings about leaving a role or colleagues, Ms. Bryant says, they might focus their exit interview on how their experience prepared them for their next role and emphasize the positive so as to not burn a bridge.”

That is the exact problem with Exit Interviews — anyone with a functioning brain knows to not say anything that might come back to haunt them later.

Interviewing departing employees may sound good, but it also makes you wonder why that conversation didn’t happen when it was a lot more meaningful — like before the employee decided to quit.

That’s what The Wall Street Journal completely missed; Exit Interviews are too just little, too late.