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Should you take it personally when staff leave? Are exit interviews a chore or a charade?

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So you run that exit interview when a valued employee walks out the door. But then what?

It is a question many bosses find hard to answer. That is because emotions run high with many taking an exit as a personal betrayal. So, the managers swiftly proceed into denial mode, dismissing what an exiting employee has said as “no great surprises,” or saying they knew it all along.

In reality, managers often don’t know what their employees really think, and, worse, don’t demonstrate the right intent to find out.

How do I know this?

I have interviewed hundreds of exiting employees and their managers. More often than not, there are vast differences between what the employee thinks, and what the manager thinks they think.

So what’s happening here? Why do leaders feel the need to explain away reasons why employees leave?

It boils down to basic human psychology. It is normal human behaviour to want to be in control of any situation. So, owners and managers delude themselves into believing they were aware of their employee’s dissatisfaction. Any evidence otherwise can lead to the suspicion that they were not in control at all.

But, such an approach defeats the very purpose of exit interviews.

As an executive coach for the past 15 years, I can tell you that receiving feedback is challenging for even the most senior and experienced professionals.

If you are a manager who “already knows it all” or who gets “no great surprises,” then you have passed up an opportunity to learn and improve. But successful managers share a common characteristic. To a person they all open themselves up to feedback – good and bad. And when the feedback is bad, they challenge themselves to do something different.

What’s the way forward?

Firstly, recognise that there will always be a number of factors that lead to an employee’s decision to exit. The exit conversation will provide only one part of the picture. But there are other, better, ways to gather, interpret and apply feedback from exiting employees.

One option is a more informal conversation that could gather raw unfiltered feedback, besides demonstrating respect to the person who is leaving.

A second option is an independent exit survey with your employee covering the full range of known drivers to detachment, followed by a similar process that uncovers how your managers would rate their exiting employee’s perceptions across those same drivers. This independent process may throw up real constructive feedback that might be most beneficial to you and your business.

Anthony Sork is an executive coach and MD of human capital consultancy, Sork HC. He is the developer of the Employee Detachment Inventory.

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