Why exit interviews don't matter
Remove this meaningless exercise from the offboarding process
Here’s the thing about working at the same company for 15 years: the world of work changes and you’re often unaware of things that become “standard practice.”
Case in point: I’d never heard of exit interviews before 2021.
After I left my job at a fintech and began a new career as a content marketer, I learned that the agency regularly conducted exit interviews. I was intrigued. It seemed like a great opportunity for the company to learn and make things better. After all, it’s rare that employees leave jobs they love. Money, flexibility, feeling undervalued — these are the primary motivators.
But the more I’ve observed over the past few years, the more I’ve determined that exit interviews are pointless. They’re a box to check. And often, they cause more harm than good.
Scenario 1: The interviewer has no power
Most often, exit interviews are conducted by someone in HR. It’s a chance for the employee to pour out all their grievances. If you’ve not been through one, you can probably imagine the questions:
Why are you leaving?
What could we have done differently?
Is there any way that we could convince you to stay?
The HR person will listen sympathetically and take notes. Might agree that things could be improved. Might even apologize for the employee’s experience. The employee might feel like change will happen for the people still at the company.
The HR person compiles the notes from all of the exit interviews and notices patterns. Sure, sometimes the role is a bad fit or the employee had a uniquely bad experience. But often — especially in companies that have high turnover — the same problems will come up during exit interviews.
But here’s the thing: that HR person rarely has the power to drive change.
It’s like shouting into a void.
Overworked? HR can’t control that. Underpaid? If it’s systemic, that’s a much bigger problem than a single employee. Flexibity? Those are usually company-wide policies, not determined by HR alone.
For the exit interview from my last job, I was very candid that the role had ended very badly. And also acknowledged that the HR person could do nothing about it. It was a venting session for me, nothing more.
Then general manager asked to speak with me, telling me that he “felt bad” about how things ended. I refused to discuss it further. At that point, it would do nothing to make me feel better and I had nothing to gain by rehashing the experiences again.
All HR can do is take notes. It falls to the company to actually do something with the collected information.
Scenario 2: The employee lies
Chances are, employees will get wind that exit interviews are pointless. They watch fellow employees leave, over and over, and change never happens. They’re aware that other employees were open and honest in their exit interviews, yet the same cycle of problems continues.
The employee knows that an exit interview is part of the offboarding process. So in the vein of “let’s get this over with,” the employee lies. Or glosses over the ugly parts.
“Everything was fine. I just got a better opportunity.”
Quick and painless meeting.
When I left a content agency, the COO decided to conduct my exit interview. I’d been told I was on a leadership path (an empty promise; one of the reasons I left). I cheerfully smiled and chatted during the exit interview. I’d seen enough during my (brief) tenure to know that nothing would change. Why bother with confrontation?
Scenario 3: The company makes excuses
There are two failed outcomes from exit interviews. One is that the company recognizes the problems, but doesn’t take action. The other is that the company dismisses the employees’ experiences.
“It’s definitely not me (the company); it’s you (the employee).”
The employee wasn’t a good fit for the company’s culture. Not a team player. Not willing to go the extra mile. Didn’t have the right skills to get the job done. Not committed.
And a whole other litany of excuses that put the blame on the employee, rather than the company.
Toxic companies rarely realize that they are toxic.
It’s one thing to let problems continue because the company cannot (or will not) figure out how to fix them. It’s entirely different to pretend (or truly believe) that everything is fine.
When I left my executive role in fintech, I told my boss point-blank that I was leaving because the CEO was insufferable and I had no confidence in the direction of the company. This was no surprise to her; we’d been talking (commiserating) for years.
But when the CEO asked me in our executive management meeting the following week, I said, “Oh, I just want to follow my passion in life.”
I could have said that I disagreed with the company’s direction (and left out the insufferable part). That was a valid reason, especially coming from an executive. However, there was zero chance that anything would change. The CEO would get defensive and didn’t have enough introspection to understand that the talented employees were leaving (still a pattern to this day).
Even though there was no formal exit interview, that natural question of, “Why?” came up.
And knowing that things wouldn’t change, it was better to protect myself.
Is a “stay interview” better?
I’ve heard of “stay interviews” — where a company asks employees why they continue to stay. The goal is to learn what factors contribute to job satisfaction, in the hopes of using that information to reduce employee turnover.
I’m skeptical. A stay interview seems to have the same problems. Employees will lie, especially if they are truly unhappy but pretending otherwise for job security.
I’ve completed anonymous surveys asking me about job satisfaction and my level of engagement. Fearful that the survey wasn’t actually anonymous or that my answers to open-ended questions might give me away, I lied.
Going through the motions of exit and stay interviews only matter if the company truly wants to change. And I’m going to venture a guess that those companies — the rare breed that truly gives a crap about their employees and strives to make things better — have lower turnover anyway.
A roundup of stuff from around The Interwebs. Some to make you smile, some to make you roll your eyes. And some stuff that I wrote on other platforms.
Why are there so many tech layoffs. and why should we be worried? | Stanford News
Extremely Hardcore | The Verge
The Year I Bet on Myself | me, Medium
You can also follow me on LinkedIn for more insights about work, or on Twitter for spicier takes, and Medium where I write about fun stuff like productivity and creativity. Or catch up on the personal side of my life on my blog.
This publication is free because I love sharing ideas and connecting with others about the future of work. If you want to support me as a writer, you can buy me a coffee.