The Exit Interview: too little, too late?

Supervisors need to create open spaces to hear from their employees.

June 12, 2019

Many organizations hold exit interviews on the last day of employment. According to a Harvard Business Review article from last year, Making Exit Interviews Count, an exit interview serves 6 functions including “understanding employee’s perception of their work” and “fostering innovation by soliciting new ideas.” These are important goals, but waiting for the exit interview may very well be too little, and too late. The authors themselves end the article with a similar point:

“The Exit Interview should be a culmination of a series of regular retention conversations with employees focused on organizational learning and relationship building.” – Everett Spain (West Point) and Boris Groysberg (Harvard Business School) in Making Exit Interviews Count.

But very few organizations see exit interviews as part of a longer process of knowledge management and relationship building. For these organizations the Exit Interview is simply a reactionary, last ditch effort to extract what it can from an employee soon to leave its ranks. It is perhaps for this reason that John Murphy, the U.K. Civil Service Knowledge Management & Information Lead, calls Exit Interviews “salvage operations.”
The following two scenarios illustrate the dangers of not having a more consistent plan in place than the one off exit interview.

The Star that Left

She was the one we all turned to when a question came up about institutional memory. Why was it that the organization had done things this way? Had it overlooked approach XYZ, or had it rejected after closer examination?

In many instances, there is a person who becomes the go-to person, either due to longevity in the organization, unique expertise, or both. When this situation is left to run it’s course, it is likely to just get more and more salient. As more people pick up on her centrality, they will turn to her more frequently which in turn deepens and extends her knowledge from across the organization.

Reinventing the Wheel

One can easily see how losing a key, high performer would be hard to overcome but the fact of the matter is that it is a much broader problem. All employees have unique insights into their own work and responsibilities, which their colleagues and supervisors only see from afar. This is not limited to certain jobs or titles, When someone leaves the workplace, they take with them a range of insights on how to do their job well. The specifics vary from case to case, but they may be asked to write a transition document, participate in an exit interview, perhaps even train their replacement. Regardless the aim is the same, to avoid reinventing the wheel by attempting to get the blueprints before the inventor leaves.

Don’t leave for tomorrow what you can do today

Unless integrated in a broader set of activities throughout the life course of an employee, exit interviews risk being too out little too late. Having identified the problem, the solution can be reverse engineered. Supervisors need to create open spaces to hear from their employees and not just instruct them on what to do. Companies need to create more horizontal and diagonal channels of communication, so that an employee’s insight and perspective is more broadly disseminated – and just as importantly so that the employee feels heard and enmeshed within internal company networks. Doing this will not only help the company to be better positioned when an employee leaves but could very well reduce attrition rates as employees feel more heard, involved, and engaged.

Michael Soto is the co-founder of Spark Collaboration.  Spark helps organizations connect their stakeholders to share ideas face-to-face. Using Spark, organizations can match stakeholders one-on-one for real-time social interactions. By meeting over coffee, lunch or video, stakeholders can create real social connections that can help them be more connected, innovative and ultimately more productive.