How Smart People Fail The Exit Interview
Eventually, we all find ourselves facing our HR rep – a table between us – while they press pen to paper to ask us their questions for the company exit interview. The circumstances may vary, from being asked to leave to leaving for greener, better opportunities. No matter if this is a love-fest or a hate-fest moment, there are several things you need to do and several things you need to avoid doing with every fiber of your being. Even the most seasoned, polished of us tend to misstep here and fail to capitalize on a great opportunity. We may dream of a “take this job and shove it” moment, but most of know that is folly.
Erin Moran is the Chief Culture Officer of Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) with such signature restaurants like Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe in NYC. She is also a 10-year veteran of these conversations as the former Executive Vice President of the Great Place To Work Institute (US) and their annual Best Companies To Work For list. Nothing shocks or rattles her anymore, but she is the first to admit that she can be pleasantly surprised by a few amazing positive experiences from an employee moving on. Erin offers a list of “Do This/Don’t Do That” techniques for winning the exit interview.
DON’T: “No matter the situation, don’t ‘vomit anger’ during your exit interview. Every circumstance of transitioning on to another company is emotional. There was one great example where someone started off by saying how they were going ‘bash the entire company on social media.’ That kind of venom makes it hard to take anything they say after that seriously. Here is a real opportunity for the employee to have a level of freedom in their discourse with the company that they may have never experienced before. Starting off with ‘bashing your boss,’ or ‘threatening a smear campaign’ on social media might allow you vent some frustration, but as a result, little substance of your ideas will be able to permeate the haze of hate.
DO: “Want to win over the HR department? Maybe you don’t realize it yet, but your answer should be an emphatic ‘yes.’ You should always plan on leaving a great impression – a real ‘wow’ moment. This is your opportunity to help the company, and possibly the next person coming into the organization, be better – be a better place to work. Start with the simple question ‘What do I think will make this a better company?’ You can and should still be honest with your feedback, but the feedback is best received when it is delivered in a constructive manner.
If you’re really thinking ‘my boss was a micromanaging jerk,’ you can discuss the concern by positioning it as ‘I rarely experienced that my leader trusted us to do our work with an appropriate level of autonomy. Personally, this prevented me from being able to bring my best to work and limited my potential as well as the contributions I could have made to the company. I believe that my leader would greatly benefit from coaching or further leadership development to address this opportunity because this would enable the team to contribute so much more to the business.’ Most HR teams will welcome this type of feedback over the ‘my boss is a jerk!’ speech which is the usual message delivered in exit interviews.”
DON’T: “You might be surprised by the number of employees that use this as an opportunity to lie, or exaggerate the truth – both in the interview and in public. Similar to your tone, the worst thing you can do is take your frustrations external and exaggerate them. There was one terrible example where an employee just imploded and took their concerns public and grossly exaggerated the issue on social media. Instead of having intelligent discourse, they became ‘Courtney Love’ overnight. Every industry is a small, small world especially given the web of connections enabled by social media. This person quickly garnered a bad reputation and had difficulty finding a new job. You may have legitimate concerns, but check yourself to make sure that you are sharing an honest and unemotional viewpoint. There is a great Ambrose Bierce quote ‘Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.’ So true.”
DO: “Great opportunity for honesty. You can be critical and respectful at the same time. Here is your chance to have to have open dialogue with the people responsible for shepherding the culture of the organization. Keep the conversation factual and tell the truth about what is working or not working in the organization from your perspective. You can provide specific examples related to your concerns without making it personal. Similarly, this is a great time to be honest in your praise as well. The seasoned HR team has heard it all before. Trust me – your honest and direct feedback will be well received by the team.”
DON’T: “I know that exiting employees want management to act swiftly on their feedback and to make the recommended changes to address the concerns. Specifically, if an employee has a very specific issue with a leader or other employee, they want to hear that this led to an investigation and action and if they don’t hear this, they think that their feedback didn’t really matter anyway. The reality is that you will probably hear nothing about what happens next – for a variety of cultural, legal, and regulatory reasons. But don’t assume that ‘if you don’t see it, it does not exist.’ There maybe very valid reasons the next steps are not more public, but don’t interpret that as a sign that your feedback wasn’t heard, appreciated or acted upon.”
DO: “Please, please, please Speak Up! For example, we are looking to implement some predictive analytics at USHG to analyze exit interview data with other talent metrics, such as employee survey data, training hours, career progression, performance reviews, etc. Savvy organizations are looking for data to quantify hot issues for employees and what make a person decide to leave to try to create interventions to retain talent, particularly top talent. Your insights may lead to use investigating a single issue, but even general viewpoints are going to be incredibly helpful for the company to make necessary improvements.
Organizations identify what is called ‘HiPo’s’ (High Potential Employees) and these employees have a demonstrated track record of exceeding performance expectations and are poised for a strong career trajectory within the company. Companies invest heavily in the development of HiPo’s or top talent. When analyzing attrition and exit survey data, the perspectives represented by top talent are even more heavily weighted and scrutinized.”
“Even though you might have had a long career with the company, your last couple of weeks can really define your legacy and leave a lasting impression for your former colleagues. Do the opposite of slacking off—try to leave on a high note and define a positive legacy for yourself. The hospitality industry may be more transient then others, as the nature of the industry lends to people using this as a stepping-stone to something else, so people often leave, but how they leave really creates an impression. Similarly, how people are treated by the company on the way out also leaves a lasting impression and if both parties respect and honor the relationship even as it is winding down, this not only provides the opportunity for ‘boomerangs’ to come back to the company, but also provides the company to create a strong network of alums.
At USHG, regardless of the role or the tenure with us, we hope that our people learn something very meaningful from their experience with us. Danny Meyer, our CEO, often receives thank you notes from departing employees who share their deep appreciation of their experience with us. There is one recent example where an employee who started out in the coat check and worked their way up to a management position, and when she decided to leave the company to pursue another passion, she sent a note letting Danny know that her experience was profound and helped shape her career direction and her life because it was full of rich and meaningful experiences. Receiving that type of note upon exiting is an incredible honor.
Experiences like that have led us to begin to activate an alumni network of amazing employees and experiences. We realize that not all attrition is ‘negative,’ and that people have great value as they go on to other roles in their lives. The human power of that network is staggering.”
Erin will buy you a free lunch if you can recite this article verbatim. No, not really, but it might be fun to try it. She is currently charged with the leading the culture of their amazing hospitality brands.