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  • Samir Vieira

Lessons from the Past 37: A Case for Improving Exit Interviews

We have talked earlier about how times have changed over the last 50 years. Our parents joined a commercial enterprise and generally retired there itself. Others joined a government service or the Railways or the Post and Telegraph or the Armed Forces and also retired there. But this is not so any more. This is what makes Exit Interviews (EI) so important now, as a source of information, which can be used to improve the systems in the company and create a climate and culture where few leave, unless it is for a very good reason—(and generally nothing to do with the company culture).

In my book “Manager to CEO”, I had talked about a Swiss CEO of Suhrid Geigy, India and the two things that he did which greatly impressed me in my green years. He was way ahead of his time. One—he travelled extensively throughout India, also visiting small towns and villages, checking whether Geigy products were available and at the level of the demand there. Second -- he always insisted on an exit interview personally, when anyone above the level of supervisor left the company. Both these activities have become fashionable and ‘de rigeur’ now in most progressive companies. But this CEO was a path breaker and a path finder, fifty years ago.

I think about the many CEOs I have known in 30 years, who profess that they find little use for EI, and don’t conduct them at all. When an employee leaves (especially a senior and trusted one), they shut the door and then lock it, so there is no re entry. The CEO takes the exit as a personal affront and insult—the employee leaving is an enemy—or worse, a close friend who has now become a sworn enemy. There are other CEOs who accept the EI as a prescription ‘for modern management’. Yet they accept all the comments made with a pinch of salt because they come from a source for whom ‘the grapes are sour’. The CEO tries to rationalize that the departing employee was not worth holding on to anyway. By closing his mind he misses a good opportunity.

Richard Kilburg of Johns Hopkins University says, “If the organization refused to look at the information, or to interpret it, those are the ones that do worse over time, simply because they don’t test reality.’ Still there are others, like the one for whom a leaving employee said, ‘I never had access to the top brass. If one got ten minutes of face time with the CEO, after a month of rescheduling meetings, it was significant. But once I was on my way out, the CEO met me four times—with some meetings lasting more than an hour. The company even offered to double my salary if I would postpone my departure by two months, because there was so much work. Suddenly they not only wanted my opinion, they were actually willing to pay for it! EI are many things, but when one is trying to extract oneself from an unfortunate job, these make for the wobbly tightrope strung between constructive criticism and a badly burnt bridge.

Ideally if CEOs take it in the right way, and have the good sense to distinguish constructive comments from revengeful mush, EI can help improve the company’s workings and even of colleagues. Jared Sandberg says in the WSJ, “You are jumping ship, but your office mates maybe the ones who need a life jacket. The problem is, so much has to go right with an EI, when so much can easily go wrong.” Many CEOs fail the EI test because:

  • They do not create an environment for free and frank opinion sharing between themselves and departing employees

  • They are not able to sift through criticisms—those that may be real and those that are imaginary

  • They are not able to deal with the departing employee’s inflated sense of importance and their own perception of how much their opinions are worth (now that they are going away)

  • They are unable to resist the temptation to give a poor referral to a critical departing employee—as a revenge and a response to rejection of his company.

But departing employees can also be at fault and can ruin an EI:

  • When they get on to the soap box, and irritatingly begin to do a Hyde Park speech (now that they have an opportunity—let them have it!)

  • When they get puffed up and irrational, because they are leaving and have another job waiting.

  • When in reverse, they cower; they are afraid that they will lose their status as ‘employees in good standing’ category, if they are frank

  • When they are revengeful and want to squeeze the last drop with a comment like “It’s not that I can’t work with you anymore. It’s just that I don’t have to – and I don’t want to (this opportunity to express bitterness may not come again.)

There are now some technologically savvy companies who offer the extension number 800, into an automated system, for prescriptions from departing employees (to avoid a face to face). However, most departing employees never make that call!

Once again, the CEO and his personality influence the organisation—for better or for worse, at the Exit Interview.

(Walter Vieira is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of India (FIMC). He was a corporate executive for 14 years and pioneered marketing consulting in India in 1975. As a consultant, he has worked across the globe in four continents. He was the first Asian elected Chairman of ICMCI, the world apex body of 45 countries. He is the author of 16 books; a business columnist; visiting professor on marketing in the US, Europe and Asia. His latest books are "5 Gs of family Business" with Dr Mita Dixit and "Marketing in a Digital/ Data World" with Brian Almeida. He now spends most of the time in NGO work.)

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