Does your exit process provide a true mirror to your manager, or just reflect what they think they "already know"?

It’s so true that people don’t leave companies they leave managers. Greg Savage nailed this case in his piece which appeared in the HR Daily Community last week.  He suggested that rather than go into blame mode, his managers look in the mirror when faced with a resignation, saying for some, this might be a shocking experience.

I’d like to take this idea one step further and suggest that one of the biggest barriers to managers’ strong self reflection is the traditional exit interview process that most companies use.

So what are your managers really gaining from your traditional exit interviews? And just how useful is this process?

When I talk to managers about their exit interview processes, they often dismiss the value of the exit interview findings and say “no great surprises” or “we already knew that this employee would say that.”

However as Greg implies in his article, the truth is managers often don’t know what their employees really think.

I have regularly interviewed exiting employees to assess their opinions against specific environmental drivers causing their dissatisfaction. Then I’ve asked their managers to assess that employee’s satisfaction against those drivers. More often than not I’ve found vast differences between what the employee thinks, and what the employer thinks they think.

So what’s happening here? Why do managers feel the need to be right or justified or demonstrate that they were aware of what lead to the exit decision of an employee? The answer to those questions goes back to some basic human psychology.

It is normal human behaviour to want to be in some control of any situation. Managers perceive they have responsibility to control available resources to achieve results. HR performance management processes with a measurement focus all support this assumption.  So managers have a natural defence mechanism to demonstrate that they were aware of their employee’s dissatisfaction. Any evidence to show that they didn’t know can lead to their belief that they are not in control, thus lead to their insecurity.

Ideally a manager will be highly attuned to the perceptions of their people. However this is not always possible. At those times when the opportunity to build awareness comes along, as confronting as it may be, managers cannot afford to dismiss these just for the sake of saving face.

Everyone has some responsibility here. HR practitioners must ensure they create an environment with managers where the feedback they provide is not done so in a confrontational manner which leads to their managers’ defensive response. The aim needs to be to help managers embrace the opportunity to be confronted without the process being confrontational.

As an Executive Coach for the past 15 years I have provided feedback to my clients. I can tell you receiving feedback is challenging even for the most senior and experienced professionals. Successful managers however have one common characteristic. They all open themselves up to feedback, good and bad. And when the feedback is bad they challenge themselves to do something different.

For a manager who “already knows it all” or who gets “no great surprises”, the opportunity to learn and improve has passed.

So how does this relate to exit interview feedback?

There are usually a number of factors that lead to an employee’s decision to exit. Though managers may feel they are aware of some issues, they rarely have the full picture. This is partly because the focus at the point of exit is on issues that lead to the employee’s decision to leave. Often both parties do not balance the discussion to focus on the reason that employees have stayed as long as they did.

Managers have really tough jobs. My experience is that the overwhelming majority really do operate with the best of intentions. Excluding where they need to performance manage employees, managers do not deliberately set out to create an environment for their people designed to have them leave.

So if the vast majority of exiting employees leave without it being intentionally orchestrated by their manager, why then do people leave largely because of the environment created by their manager?

I have found that this is because managers perceive that people are more engaged than they actually are. The time of exit then becomes a hugely valuable opportunity to test these perceptions with people when people are prepared to give their mostly unfiltered views.

Exit interviews are valuable and have their place. But it’s time for a review of the process. It’s time to look at measured and systematic tools that focus on multiple viewpoints. HR need to ensure the information they collect allows for Managers to look deeply at things that they did not know, rather than be able to dismiss results based on things they think they knew. If the team as a whole achieve this, then the exit process moves beyond a self justifying exercise, into a more consultative and meaningful learning experience all round.

For more information about the Employee Detachment Inventory, please visit  or



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Comment by Valentino Martinez on April 19, 2013 at 9:32

The presumption you're making here is that exit interviews actually capture open and concise reasons why an employee is leaving? 

In my forty+ years of experience of talking to employees and former employees about why they left a job is that they rarely burn a bridge by telling exactly what motivated them to leave in the first place.  Yes, they often leave for a better opportunity -- but they're also leaving an unhappy situation which drove them to find a better opportunity.  That was not shared in the exit interview.  With few exceptions -- their remarks are typically positive, appreciative and with no remorse in leaving -- for the record.

We external recruiters tend to get the candid version of why people leave a job and it's mostly negative, but it leaves the former employer in the dark about possible problems and inhouse discontent.  While there are two sides to every story -- management has to start looking deeper as to why their attrition is what it is.  I'd also venture to guess that the attrition of minorities is higher than for non-minorities.

Comment by Ryan Atkins on April 19, 2013 at 11:52

Investing in a thorough exit interview process is an also an opportunity to manage your employment brand and when done correctly, gain valuable insights to more than just what the employee is leaving for.

While I agree with Valentino that employees may filter their feedback, I find it helpful to use a measure that is positioned as one part of the exit process and that enhances the opportunity to gain balanced and honest feedback while ensuring the employee is respected and valued for their contribution.

A survey like Sork HC’s EDI also identifies the push and pull factors that lead to the decision and importantly, the degree to which the manager was aware of these.  HR practitioners can use this detachment data to identify issues and trends within teams and across business and provide targeted coaching to managers experiencing turnover.  No exit process is perfect, but this is a big step forward from traditional exit interviews. 

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