I realize that I may be treading on dangerous ground here by questioning one of the Holy Grails of HR — i.e., the exit interview — but it’s a question that needs to be asked. Why? Because exit interviews are nonnegotiable in many HR departments, yet many and employers and employees doubt the necessity and/or efficacy of these interviews. The continued existence of exit interviews in many environments is, in my opinion, as much a product of inertia and sheep mentality as it is the result of function and benefit.
It’s not hard to see why the exit interview is popular. In theory, the exit interview is an excellent opportunity to assess a departing employee’s attitude and find out the reasons for their exit with a view toward taking corrective action to reduce voluntary turnover in the future. This is the theory, but is this what happens in practice?
I, for one, don’t think so.
Not Statistically Reliable?
Research suggests that exit interview participation rates are between 30 and 35 percent for paper interviews, and this number increases for online interviews. If your organization has 200 employees with 10 percent employee turnover, you might see about six completed exit interviews a year. This is about 3 percent of the population: not a very representative sample of the employee population, given how small the sample size is.
In addition, exit interviews are not a random sample. You may only hear from those who shout the loudest, which means the statistical reliability of exit interviews is further questionable. It seems that, in many organizations — especially small- to medium-sized organizations – exit interview data is not likely to be statistically reliable.
According to two separate studies – Zarandona and Camuso 1995 and a University of Technology, Sydney study – candidates may not be truthful in their responses in exit interviews. While many will have suspected this, we now know for sure that “information distortion occurs if an employee fears retribution,” which means employees will withhold negative comments and be more positive or neutral if they believe there will be some repercussions for making negative comments about the company in the exit interview.
Do Exit Interviews Change Anything?
The potential lack of reliability and truthfulness means, that in many circumstances, exit interview data will not be actionable. In truth, I feel that it will be particularly hard for organizations of under 500 people to create an exit interview environment delivering high statistical reliability and the anonymous/repercussion-free environment that is needed for honesty.
Reliable and truthful exit interviews become more achievable in larger organizations, due to larger sample sizes and the masking effect of a higher volume of departures, but you then have to face the next two hurdles of extracting actionable data and turning that into corrective action.
So, unless you are able to create exit interviews with reliable, truthful, and actionable results and have a clear system for feeding that information back into your HR processes to improve HR — by no means a simple or achievable task — then I don’t think exit interviews are worthwhile. You may be better served investing more time and energy into employee engagement surveys and initiatives.