5 steps to more truthfulness in an exit interview
Exit interviews are a powerful source of information about how people feel about their job, their boss, their colleagues, the organisation and the work. It is completely understandable that someone will not be completely honest about these things when, as an employee, their current livelihood and future career could be at risk.
A recent experience brought home to me the huge potential benefit that organisations could gain if the data from an exit interview could be accessed before an employee resigns. Is it realistic to make it safe for people to be that honest while still in the job?
I would say an exit interview has three essential purposes:
- To find out the truth about why the person quit
- To learn from the ex-employee what is good and bad about how the organisation has been working.. as they see it
- To enable the leaver to complete their ‘unfinished business’, let go and move on.
My experience with Clare
When she was in the job, Clare (name changed) was all smiles and mutual appreciation. She was a skilled and conscientious administrator. Clients liked her, her boss thought she was great and she said she enjoyed the job. Yet, after just 6 months she gave notice to quit saying she wanted to bring forward her plans to start her own business. Her bosses wanted to know why – was there more to it, other hidden reasons? They asked me as an interested outsider to find out. So I invited her to an exit interview. We met over coffee one morning.
I liked Clare straight away. I knew I had to create a ‘safe space’ so she could say what she knew, thought and felt. As a corporate HR professional, then coach, OD consultant and facilitator, I’ve been talking to people, getting them to open up to me for 40 years! I’m good at it. What’s more, in this case I did a good job. Clare did tell me what she knew, thought and felt about the organisation, the people and the job she had just left.
How to encourage truth
What interests me now, a question I’m wanting to answer is: “In an organisation context, what can I do to encourage and enable someone – especially someone less senior – to tell me the truth?”
So I have reflected on our conversation to see what I did that helped and here’s what I’ve come up with:
1. Self-scan for bias
I started, before the meeting, by examining my own views and prejudices – I know the risk that I will ask questions to confirm my pre-existing world view and send non-verbal signals that guide ‘the other’ to tell me what I want to hear. People call it ‘keeping an open mind’. In fact it is catching myself early to prevent bias and selective listening.
2. Explicitly invite truth
After saying hello and exchanging pleasantries for a few minutes, I introduced the purpose of the conversation – To learn what is good and bad about how the organisation has been working.. as they see it. I encouraged Clare to be as open as she can and said something like: “Whatever you tell me, I won’t drop you in it. That means, you will never think, I wish now I hadn’t told him that”
3. Create a safe space
Clare needs to know I am genuinely interested. She needs to know exactly what my intentions are in having this conversation, that’s what will make her feel safe. I will not judge or criticise her – I just want to understand. I am trying to remove any sense she might have that telling me about her experience might cause her a problem or get someone else into trouble. Clare seems a kind and considerate person. Sometimes kindness and consideration get in the way of the truth.
I also want to make sure Clare knows that I take her experience and views seriously. I want her to ‘feel heard’ so that she feels motivated to take time and trouble in telling me about her experience, to tell me her truth.
4. Ask, listen, check
So I ask questions about ways in which the organisation works well and what doesn’t work so well. I’m careful, I listen, check I understand, do a little probing and clarifying when I’m not sure. I ask for her opinions – “Why do you think that happens?”
5. Take a risk – give something away
Once we’ve got past the point where she is being careful, from time to time, I introduce a question by saying what I think. I express a provocative or risky view – “ I wonder whether the organisation is giving enough attention to..” or “I suspect we have made a mistake in concentrating too much on…” In being critical, again I’m intentionally sending a signal, giving Clare permission, equally, to be critical.
“Most people quit their boss not their job”. I wanted to know to what extent this was true for Clare. Did her boss (unintentionally) contribute to her decision to quit? I asked her something like..”in the way you were managed, what helped you do your job well and what got in the way?” This was a tricky, sticky bit of our conversation. I could tell – I started feeling a bit awkward – the timing of our exchanges got muddled – her eye contact got jumpy.
Clare started to become evasive. So, to make it safe for her to tell me her truth, I took a risk and told her about my truth. I introduced it by asking her if she would agree to the same ‘not drop me in it’ rule as I had made for her. Then I said something like: “From time to time, I find Robert (name changed) really difficult. When he gets anxious, he stops listening and gets into too much detail”
It was as if I had unblocked a drain – as she started, her exact words were: “Oh, it’s such a relief to hear you say that”. She went on, in full flow, to describe her experience of her boss in detail. She had lots of good things to say but also described some serious difficulties.
It was a ‘moment of truth’ – the chance for Clare to express some of her frustration and distress and a chance to tell her truth. Here was the unfinished business – and, having said it, Clare could let it go.
So here’s what encourages and enables people to tell the truth:
- Making plain your intentions – being there to understand, not to judge or apportion blame
- Making it clear you want to hear the truth
- Creating a safe space by identifying and removing potential risks and unwanted consequences
- Taking people, their ideas and perspectives seriously – listening, clarifying and checking understanding
- When the time is right, opening-up a safe space by making yourself vulnerable; saying something risky that means something to the other.
I think these 5 steps can be applied in lots of settings to encourage more truthfulness. The question I am left with, though, is: Why do we have to wait until someone leaves a job before they will tell the truth about their experience of doing it? The answer is obvious.. there is just too much at stake – at least my livelihood and perhaps my career.
The exit interview makes it safe or at least safer for people to tell the truth. Creating the same conditions, the same feeling of safety, for people still inside the organisation that’s a serious challenge, but given the potential benefit, it must be one worth facing.