You’re leaving the company, either on your own terms or theirs. Before you leave, the HR department wants to you have a little chat with them, or to fill out an online form, to share your experiences in the name of improving the situation for the next employee.
"At last!" you think. “Finally, I can say what they’re doing wrong!”
Pause, if you will. Before you unload your grievances or constructive criticism, consider this (real) scenario.
It's a huge company, with many huge military contracts.
The employee is finally getting out, transferring to a new department. Here's a list of the things he* could bring up in his exit interview. But he wonders: Should he bother?
- The annual review system is botched. His manager told him they don't not give out Exceeds Expectations ratings unless an employee's getting promoted (thus quashing the motivation to excel; what's the point of giving EE performance that won't get proper acknowledgement?).
- Lack of proper feedback. He got the minimum salary increase but wasn't told where he needed to improve.
- No respect for personal lives. Vacation requests submitted a month in advance were frequently lost or forgotten, spurring frantic phone calls asking the employee where he was, despite verbal reminders given before the personal time.
- Unprofessional atmosphere. Managers gossiped—loudly and in the office. (Managers of the world, FYI: Using a foreign language does not equate to a cone of silence.)
- Disregard for safety. Safety is not emphasized with the field personnel, and managers discourage individuals from submitting incident reports.
He—a Redditor who goes by the handle TurdMurder—had been in his group for nearly two long, miserable years, biting his tongue and playing the polite, obedient employee. His transfer was imminent. He was ready to let it all out.
“I'd like to be honest so upper management can see the group has major issues,” he wrote in his Reddit posting.
The problem, of course, was twofold: whether there was any point to being honest, and if so, how to do it without burning bridges.
A slew of commenters brought up a good point: If his department hadn't changed for 20+ years, why would they change now? They probably wouldn't listen to him anyway, so why bother?
Because he's a moral person, evidently.
After much back and forth, TurdMurder wrote that he decided not to fill out the company's online exit interview form. What good can possibly come from leaving a paper trail of material that can be interpreted as negative? However, he did decide to sit down with HR for 20 minutes and conduct a verbal exit interview in which he would go over two points: safety and managers publicly talking crap.
"Other departments and the company as a whole promote reporting incidents and close calls at all possible opportunities to make others aware of potential dangers," he wrote. "I can't believe I heard firsthand a manager telling a tech to not fill out a report for a very minor incident. That is an absolute disregard for the well being of the staff and encouragement of safe habits."
So yes, he wanted to bring up safety in the exit interview, given that he cared about his colleagues.
His hesitancy to bring up anything at all suggests some questions we all should think about with regards to exit interviews. Should we be honest but possibly make enemies? Or should we keep our mouths shut and let the organization continue to spiral down the toilet?
I talked to some HR professionals to get their take. I wanted to know what the outcome can be for employees who are honest in these interviews. My first question relates to the "what possible good can this do" issue. That is –
Are you providing actionable input or birdcage lining?
Do businesses actually do anything with the feedback you give them in exit interviews?
Well, of course they make use of feedback, Reddit commenter elus said. It's not like exit interviews are free. "They pay for them, either through hours of effort expended by HR or by hiring a vendor to [perform] the interview for them," she** writes. "It's very unlikely that people will bother doing work that no one's going to read afterwards."
Elus says she works for an HR outsourcing firm that provides exit interviews for its clients, and that their worth to organizations is underscored by the fact that they're the first thing that gets cut when business withers: kind of like the pricey cherry on the HR services sundae. "Exit interviews are the first thing to go when times are hard, which tells us that these companies definitely assess the value proposition of doing them and aren't just doing them for the hell of it," elus writes.
Well, maybe. Actually, people who work salaried gigs fill their time with work nobody bothers to use. I asked salaried HR pros whether anybody actually uses the input, and they melted into stuttering hesitancy. "Sure, there are places where it's an empty formality, but not here!" they all, more or less, finally choked out.
"I guess my experience—although I’d not be willing to name the organizations for the burning bridges reason—is that I’ve not seen anything change as a result," said Pat Cleary, president and CEO of The National Association of Professional Employer Organizations (NAPEO).
Roberta Chinsky Matuson agreed. She's the president of Human Resource Solutions,which is a provider of virtual and outsourced HR services, and author of Suddenly In Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around.
"I think their original intent was to find out how they can improve the workplace," Matuson said. "Unfortunately, now it's more just data collection. All too often nothing really changes. Original intentions were good, but I haven't heard of too many situations where things change.”
A few notable exceptions where things may change
Exception 1: salary and benefits. If you tell them you're leaving because you're being offered a better deal on either or both, they'll notice—particularly if multiple exiting employees tell them the company is not doling out market rates.
"[At prior employers] we looked at our pay scales, and if everybody who was leaving said they weren't compensated fairly," Matuson said. "Or if people said benefits weren't competitive. We'd look at what they're getting somewhere else. We'd look to see if we could make changes. Sometimes we'd get rid of a manager. If people are leaving because of a situation, and in masses, we'd do something about it."
But wait. They actually got rid of managers? That would mean, obviously, that exiting staff had told them the truth about managers, right?
Yes. If other exiting employees back up your take on a manager's performance, it can add up to the situation getting redressed.
So yes, you might want to give honest feedback on a manager or colleague if you're feeling magnanimous and want to help out future victims, and it might actually accomplish something. But the safest thing to do is skip it, Matuson said, else the person you're talking about gets wind of your comments.
"If you ever want to work in this town again, it's best to curtail what you really think when you're heading out the door," she said. "This isn't the time to tell HR how your boss is the worst boss you've ever had or how you couldn't wait to find a new job. It's best to leave that for people who aren't bright enough to figure out that one day they may actually need a reference."
Exceptions 2 and 3: training and picnics. John Segalla is director of HR at Eliassen Group, an IT staffing and recruiting agency. He's gotten feedback from exiting IT recruiters that have led to two things: formal training and picnics.
Typically, Eliassen Group used to hire people who had experience at technical recruiting and fit the typical profile: the right personality, the right people skills, the knowledge of how to source talent and how to close the deal, that kind of thing.
Two exiting women recruiters—one in a Mid-Atlantic office and one in the company's Manhattan office—noted that they were kind of thrown into the recruiting soup without much formal training. One said she thought she'd have been a lot more successful if the group had a more robust and formal training program.
It was "great feedback," Segalla said. Eliassen Group has 186 employees internally and about 1,100 consultants, and it's looking to double over the next two to three years. To do that, it's going to need to hire a lot more people.
So the company created a formal, robust training program. The training program will enable the firm to hire from a much broader talent pool that doesn't necessarily have a track record with technical recruiting. They've now got about five modules that walk a trainee through the lifecycle of recruiting, including sourcing talent, training on the systems involved, building the relationship, and closing a deal.
The picnic thing? That has to do with the different cultures between the main offices in Massachusetts and the company's remote offices, which can have just a handful of people.
The corporate office's culture is sweet. They've always done massages at the Wakefield office. It's not a secret. They've got a dedicated massage room. On Tuesdays, the masseuse comes. Anybody on staff can schedule a one-hour massage.
Unless, that is, that staffer works in the barren, massage-less, picnic-deprived, outing-starved hinterlands. But the employee remembers those massages from the day they spent in the corporate office, before getting packed away to no-massage land.
And when they hit the exit interview, the soon-to-be-ex-employee specifically mentions massages. "They say, 'I wish we could have had the massages as well,'" Segalla says. Which, of course, is not about massages so much as about the company culture, which includes outings and picnics and fun things.
So, OK. Point well taken. Maybe not a masseuse per se for remote offices that only have four or five staffers, but if corporate is having an outing, now they schedule something nice for the outliers.
Much depends on who's doing the interview
Regarding how, exactly, to best deliver criticism, whether it's about a lack of massages or a lousy manager, Matuson said that yes, of course, there's definitely a constructive way to do it.
But at the end of the day, she said, you have to ask yourself, for what? "You've already checked out. You've moved on. Why bother?" she says.
Having said that, though, it all depends on who's asking you questions in the interview. If the CEO sits down and says that she really wants to know what could be done better or what the organization could have done to make you stay (constructively, non-bitterly, without recrimination), give her the straight dope.
"Then you're talking to somebody who can really make a change, not just somebody who says, 'Oh, that's just John, he's a whiner,'" Matuson says. "Why bother with the manager? That's like asking the wolves to guard the chickens."
If you're working for somebody like Segalla, you're golden. He doesn't mind grumpy exiting employees. He finds he learns plenty from them, just as he does from the even-handed, diplomatic types. You can be constructive and grumpy at the same time, he said.
Do you work for somebody like Segalla? Have you ever even met the HR person doing your exit interview? Do you trust them to do something productive with whatever you tell them? Do they have the necessary sway in the organization to initiate positive change? Are you sure your words won't be shared with somebody whom you'll encounter again, and who might hold them against you?
If so, open up your pie hole and let it all out.
Otherwise, stay safe, and save your breath.
*The male gender is just a guess. The anecdote was posted on Reddit by someone with the handle of TurdMurder who didn't respond to queries by the time this posted.
**Ditto on elus's gender.