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Exit interviews are a double-edged sword: Your company desperately wants information from departing employees about how to improve, but employees have little motivation to provide complete, honest reasons for their departure.

You can promise up one side and down the other that you'll keep individual answers confidential, but the person is unlikely to believe that his former manager won't find out if he says, “I'm leaving because my manager is a jerk." Jerk managers are jerks about lots of things — and they don't take negative feedback well. Your former employees want to keep their good references, so they're not likely to speak up.

So, if your employees aren't likely to be entirely honest, should you hold exit interviews at all? The short answer is yes. The long answer is yes, but only if you ask for constructive criticism, understand how to use the information you're given and focus on trends. Here's a deeper look at how to ensure your exit interviews are effective.

Cover Your Bases With the Basics

There are a few basic topics on which most employees will be very straightforward with you, and it's important to consider what their answers indicate about your company. When you're assessing your own company policies and procedures, honest feedback from the below categories can serve as valuable information:

  • Their new salary: Is it higher? Did they take a pay cut?
  • Their new title: Are they making a lateral move? Are they getting promoted?
  • Their new employer: Are they staying in the industry? Or becoming more specialized?
  • Their feelings on general company policies: PTO, flexible schedules, work hours

For instance, you can learn a lot about your own company's career development process through the type of positions people are taking. If too many people are leaving for promotions, it may be time to look at your company's performance review and promotion process. Or, on the other hand, if too many people are willing to go through the time-consuming effort of finding a new job for the same pay and responsibilities, it may be time to look into your current team structures and workloads.

In addition, feedback about your company's policies can lead to important procedural changes. If enough people start saying that your health plans stink, then your health plans stink. If people keep saying that you don't have a reasonable vacation plan, you don't have a reasonable vacation plan. Believe them — or else you will continue to lose star employees.

Ask for Constructive Criticism — and Know How to Use It

Should you try to move behind the "big four" topics for more nuanced feedback? Absolutely — just make sure you use clear questions and have a process in place for following up on that feedback.

For instance, if you simply ask, "Why are you leaving?" and someone tells you she's leaving because her boss is a jerk, it's hard to act upon the information. Do you hold a meeting with her boss and report that information back? If you do that, there's a good chance that you'll ruin the future reference for the employee. Do you notify the manager's manager that there may be a problem? Providing individual feedback is trickier than generating a report with overall performance numbers — and opens potential for personal bias.

If you want more feedback, don't make your exiting employees feel like they're just naming names or complaining. Instead, try asking for constructive criticism through questions like these:

  • What, if any, changes would have made to your time with us?
  • How do you feel you advanced in your career while working here? What held you back?
  • Would you ever be interested in returning to work here? Why or why not?
  • During the hiring process, what could we have done differently?

These questions are more HR-oriented and within your power to fix. However, it's important that you do try to fix them — don't bother asking these questions if you're not going to take the answers into consideration. Remember, your exiting employees likely have friends that still work for your company and they'll hear about whether changes are being made.

Take Feedback With a Grain of Salt

Last but not least, don't take every interviewer's feedback as gospel truth. “My manager is a big jerk" coupled with an employee's record of coming in late and clocking out early most likely means that the manager was simply managing and the two didn't see eye to eye.

An exit interview can provide valuable information, but it's not a source of unbiased information. Instead of just looking at interviews on a case-by-case basis, look for trends and consistent feedback — and then use the collective information to improve your company. If you do this, you'll be able to build a better culture and take care of problems proactively.

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