Getting the Most out of Exit Interviews

All too often, exit interviews only provide a format for dumping bad feelings, when they should be an opportunity to gather the most honest feedback an employee is willing to provide ó if, that is, you know what to ask about. If we divided performance into logical work factors, we have the following failure factors: 1. Whether the person has the skills to do the job. The first factor is the primary cause of job failure, not because applicants lie outright about their qualifications (although they do “exaggerate”), but because the organization often does a bad job defining the right competencies or measuring whether the applicant has job skills or not. Jobs skills involve more than OJT or past experience. They include being smart enough to learn and solve problems associated with the job; being organized enough to get work done; having the right interpersonal skills to get things done through people; and having the right attitudes, interests, and motivations to use the first three skills. Unskilled employees will always lead to job failure and dissatisfaction. Here are some exit interview questions you might want to ask to discover whether your hiring process is improperly assessing skills:

  • When you were hired, did the interviewer really know if you had job skills or not?
  • Were you tested (during the application stage) for all the skills you needed to do the job?
  • Did the job match what you expected?
  • What part of the job was easy for you? Hard for you?

These are all questions that gather information about job requirements and an applicant’s prequalification for the job. Negative answers indicate a weak understanding of job requirements and a poor evaluation of applicant skills by your staffing function. 2. Whether the person’s manager helped or hindered the employee’s performance. The second most common factor associated with job dissatisfaction is an employee’s immediate manager. This person has the power to make an employee’s job either wonderful or miserable. I myself have been in several jobs where I went from “fair-hair child” to “red-headed stepchild” overnight. The only thing that changed was my manager. In all cases, the new managers had impaired management skills. One had a toxic paranoid style that decimated his department; another was a neurotic attorney who never held department meetings, stole company contracts, and expected subordinates to read his mind; and the third was an obsessive-compulsive micromanager. They all interviewed well, but they destroyed employees and were eventually terminated. Some exit interview questions that will help uncover supervisor problems:

  • How were you treated by your supervisor? Friendly? Helpful? Respect?
  • Did your manager help you anticipate or coach you through problems?

Treatment by immediate supervisors is among the primary complaints of employees. It is also a major reason for unionization efforts (i.e., the employee needs third-party protection). A good first line supervisor develops a concerned, developmental relationship with his or her subordinates. Toxic front-line supervisors destroy employee productivity. 3. Whether the organization provided the necessary training and skills. The third failure factor is absence of training. We are not talking about training that changes behavior. We are referring to training that provides basic direction and knowledge to perform the job effectively. In some cases, an employee will not have sufficient skills to complete training. That is not the same thing as helping a qualified person become better. Here are some exit interview questions relating to training issues:

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  • Did you receive adequate initial training to perform the job? What kind?
  • Was training related to job performance?

Good training will not turn the proverbial sow’s ear into a silk purse, but poor training can significantly interfere with productivity. 4. Whether the organization helped or hindered employee performance. The fourth factor is the environment. This includes things like wages, working conditions, opportunities for enrichment or advancement, and having the resources to do the job. I worked in two companies where we had to share a single computer among several people. In another company, the programmers developed programs on mega-machines unavailable to the average person, then wondered why the program ran slow. In a third company, the president had two assistants, while the rest of the company had to share one assistant four ways. I’m sure you have dozens of your own horror stories yourself. Some exit interview questions pertaining to work environment:

  • Was there anything in the environment that kept you from doing your best? Working conditions? Benefits? Compensation?
  • Did other departments help or hinder your performance?

Everyone complains about money and benefits. They are seldom the major reason people terminate unless their organization is at the “trailing-edge” of the competition. Look instead for factors that hindered or frustrated a well-intentioned employee. Exit interviews are an excellent time to gather valuable information ó providing you use a systematic approach and are prepared to act on the answers you receive. Bottom line? Hire well, get out of the way and don’t screw it up!