Let Your Exit Interviews Leave the Building

One of the most intuitively appealing HR concepts is that of the exit interview.  If we only knew what was going through the mind of those who chose to leave our company, we could fix our turnover problems.  The thing is that there is more than enough research data to show that exit interviews are not useful in predicting or fixing turnover.  Yet, just the other day, I got a newsletter e-mail from a reputable management publication with suggestions on how to make my exit interviews better.

Exit interviews are not effective for several reasons, including:

  1. Low response rates. There really is not an upside for the leaving employee to participate, so why go through the stress and confrontation?  So, whatever data that you get is unlikely to be representative of the people who leave.

  2. Lack of candor.  Most people who would be willing to participate are also not very willing to burn bridges.  So their responses are going to be more about them than your organization.

  3. What do you think the leavers are going to tell you that you should not already know?  If a particular manager has higher turnover than the organization at large, it is probably because he/she/they is treating people poorly.  You do not need an exit interview to figure that out.

It is the last point that deserves a bit more attention.  The biggest problem with the concept of exit interviews is that they are reactive, trying to put the horses back in the barn, so to speak.  To keep turnover down, organizations should be addressing those things that lead to turnover before they become significant issues.  Identifying and acting upon turnover requires a commitment to gathering data and acting upon it.  Two steps you can take include:

  1. Using turnover as a performance measure when validating pre-employment tests.  You can lower churn for many entry level jobs by understanding which people are more likely to stay in the position and use that information in screening candidates.
  2. If you think you are going to get good information from people who are no longer engaged with your organization during the exit interview, why not get it from those who still are engaged and more likely to be candid? When you gather employee engagement data through short surveys over time, you can determine what the leading indicators of turnover are.  It takes commitment to view surveys as a process rather than events, but doing so can provide a high level of insight into employee turnover.

There will also be macro-economic factors that drive voluntary turnover that organizations may not be able to impact.  But, as the light at the end of the COVID tunnel becomes brighter and companies return to new-normal staffing levels, it provides a fresh opportunity to be proactive in understanding turnover.  This is a better approach than relying on failed techniques of the past.

A View From the Other Side

As long as there are pre-employment tests there will be people who do not like taking them. That is fair—most people would like to get the job of their choosing without jumping through hoops or by going through some process which perfectly recognizes their unique (and superior) skills compared to other applicants. But, that is not the reality that we live in (or one that is fair to all applicants). But, we must be mindful of how those who take tests and go through interviews see them. We want their experience to be one that would encourage them to recommend others to apply at a particular company or use them when they are in a position to hire/promote others.

This article is not atypical of what industrial psychologists hear about tests. 

“The test was stupid.” 

“It did not measure skills or abilities that I would actually use on the job.” 

“I did not have an opportunity to show my true skills during the process.”

But, the author does more than complain.  He offers suggestions that he (and the singular is important, because the all of the comments on the article do not support his positions) thinks would improve the hiring process.  Listening to test takers who want to improve the process, and not just get a free pass, can lead to valuable improvements in your systems.

In my experience, the top 3 things that candidates want from a testing experience are:

  1. Convenience.  The industry has gone a long way towards this by adapting to mobile technology and shortening personality and aptitude tests.
  2. Something that looks like the job or their expectations of it.  Sometimes this means interacting with others rather than just solving a problem individually.  Or, answering questions where the process is as important as the answer (since many real life work problems have more than one solution).  When a portion of the assessment does not feel like the job, candidates are more likely to exit the process.
  3. Not feeling as if they are being “tricked.”  This can range from being asked (seemingly) the same question more than once on a personality test to impossible brain teasers.  While the former can have some statistical value, Google and others have found that the latter does not. 

Pre-employment and promotional testing is a zero-sum game.  Many people, due to the fundamental attribution error, are more than willing to fault the process than themselves.  That is fine and as assessment and interview developers and users, we should listen to them.

Changing Behaviors, Not Just Attitudes

Events of 2020 accelerated companies’ interest in all things around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I).  This has brought out a lot of “experts” in the field and a multitude of unconscious bias training (UBT) programs to address the problem of discrimination in the workplace.

The idea behind UBT is that a change in an attitude (bias) will lead to a change in how people act (prejudice) so that they will show behaviors that promote DE&I. This is very different from typical development programs which focus directly on behaviors. And, while it is fair to say that our understanding of the effectiveness DE&I programs is at an early stage, there has been research done which is fairly sobering on the topic.

This report outlines what seems to be effective in the DE&I training space.  The relevant key findings are (emphasis added):

  • UBT is effective for awareness raising by using an Implicit Association Test (IAT) (followed by a debrief) or more advanced training designs such as interactive workshops.
  • UBT can be effective for reducing implicit bias, but it is unlikely to eliminate it.
  • UBT interventions are not generally designed to reduce explicit bias and those that do aim to do so have yielded mixed results.
  • Using an IAT and educating participants on unconscious bias theory is likely to increase awareness of and reduce implicit bias.
  • The evidence for UBT’s ability effectively to change behavior is limited. Most of the evidence reviewed did not use valid measures of behavior change.

I emphasized that last bullet because I believe that is where we need to focus.  If behaviors do not change then we cannot achieve DE&I.  Organizations should not spend money on DE&I programs (UBTs or otherwise) that do not show these changes.

The report hedges a bit in noting that valid measures of behavior were not used in the research studies.  Rightly, this puts the onus on organizations to define the actions that need to be changed.  For instance, use of appropriate language, giving others the opportunity to share ideas, etc.  Note that these are different from organizational goals (e.g., representation in management positions), which should be measured, which are outcomes of D&EI behaviors.

Once the behaviors are defined, then a method for evaluating them needs to be implemented.  A 360 feedback instrument is likely to be effective for interpersonal behaviors.  When well designed, these encourage raters to evaluate what they observe in others rather than giving opinions.  This provides the opportunity for those being rated to be given meaningful feedback and gives those responsible for designing UBT programs information on areas that still need more work.  How to provide this feedback is a topic for another post.

There can be objective individual measures as well.  For instance, the diversity of a person’s LinkedIn connections or hires/promotions that she/he/they was involved with.

We should always remember that any organizational change begins with people acting differently.  The important starting point in a successful DE&I initiative is understanding what are the behaviors that you want to impact.  That will be more effective in designing meaningful programs than hoping that insights from an IAT will be sufficient.

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