Exit interviews have been around for a little while now. While they may sound like a good idea on paper, they were probably devised by someone who couldn’t bring themselves to face the truth.
Companies generally don’t have a high “truth culture”. That may shock you, but it’s a fact of life – people (read executives, managers and colleagues) don’t really want to know the truth about themselves and their company because they believe the truth will be unpleasant. And no-one wants to hear something negative about themselves. They would much prefer to remain unaware of the truth about themselves. And THAT’S the truth!
If you don’t believe it, test the theory. Tell someone something about themselves that you have noticed but about which they are not aware. Then watch what happens. They will definitely not thank you for your trouble. In fact, they will become quite defensive, and in all probability aggressively point out something negative about you in return.
This is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to companies improving – leaders just can’t bear to hear the truth about themselves because they choose to see themselves as they believe they are – just perfect.
In light of this, it was probably some bright HR person who came up with the idea that it would be a good idea to get “the truth” from an employee once they had resigned because, after all, now that they were leaving, they probably wouldn’t mind spilling the beans, and “the beans” could then be used to confront or challenge remaining managers and employees to up their game. After all, so and so said you … (you can fill in the dots as you wish).
And so, the exit interview was born. But do you get the truth in an exit interview? Of course not! Do you think any half savvy employee is going to say something that can be used against them? But they’re leaving, you think. They are. But they also know that, while they didn’t need a reference from their current job to land the next one. When they move from the next one, they will definitely need a reference from the one they’re just leaving now. And there’s no way they’re going to spoil their chances of getting a respectable, or good, reference when they need that. The truth will therefore remain a mystery.
If, therefore, you’ve been conducting exit interviews in the mistaken belief that you’re getting the truth, the bad news is that, with a few possible exceptions, you’ve been wasting your time.
How, then, can you get the truth from employees?
Simple, but not easy. You have to become a conscious, intelligent listener. The truth is hidden in full view of everyone. It’s just that everyone doesn’t have the eyes or ears to see and/or hear it.
One of the ways to get to the truth is by asking questions. Understand one of the very basic principles of asking questions: when you ask a question, you must be prepared to accept the answer you are given. Some people don’t want to know the answer to a question they ask. They think they do, but they don’t. They want to hear only answers that will flatter them or suit their purposes. Train yourself to be comfortable receiving whatever answer you get to the questions you ask. That’s one way of getting the truth.
Another way of getting the truth is analysing employees’ actions. You can ignore what they say, if you closely watch what they do. People find it easier to control their words than their actions. They will therefore watch what they say but will not find it easy to cover up what they do. For example, an employee who resigns, disengaged from the organisation long before they made the decision to resign. If you knew what you were looking for, you would quickly recognise their disengaged behaviour and could take appropriate action to find out what caused their disengagement, and take remedial steps – long before they get to the resignation stage. Quite frankly, it’s too late to try to keep someone once they hand in their resignation.
Some companies have therefore opted for “stay” interviews, where they openly tell the employee that they want to keep them and then discuss what can be done to keep them. Such an approach is certainly better than doing nothing, but still cannot replace plain and simple, conscious, intelligent listening.
Leaders who genuinely listen to what their people say, and respond accordingly, will never be surprised by what their employees do. They will also get to the truth more than leaders who feel the need to rely on imposed processes simply because they don’t know how to, or couldn’t be bothered to, listen for the truth.
Alan Hosking is the publisher of HR Future magazine, www.hrfuture.net, @HRFuturemag, and a professional speaker. He assists business leaders to lead their people into the new world of work.