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Where Are All the Exit Interviews?
As turnover rages on, employers need all the feedback they can get.
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“It was very inappropriate for me to have to find the conference room for my own exit interview.”
On his last day, a former coworker who I’ll call Tim* was ready for his exit interview. (Discussing the incident two years later, he asked for anonymity to avoid publicly disparaging a former employer.) A longtime employee, Tim couldn’t wait to share how his team “had been structured poorly for years,” he told me, adding that he felt “mistreated by executives” in the weeks before he quit.
But when he showed up at 3pm, the HR partner assigned to the interview was missing. An hour later, they returned his texts, but had no place to meet. Exasperated, Tim spent his final hours at work hunting for an open room, finally sitting down for his exit interview at 5:30. The experience left a lasting impression, and Tim still recalls the day with palpable frustration. Two years later, he said, “I still can’t believe it went down that way. After five years [of great work], it was very inappropriate for me to have to find the conference room for my own exit interview.”
A lot of people left their jobs in the past six months. Some of those people found better-paying or more flexible work elsewhere. (4.4 million quit in February alone, according to a report released yesterday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.) Others were caught up in post-pandemic layoffs, as companies like Better, Peloton, and Zillow pulled back on aggressive growth plans. And as The Information reported earlier this month, startups are bracing for even more layoffs this year as venture capital funding dries up.
With HR teams starved for feedback, it seems like the perfect time to dig into exit interviews and find out what’s really going on. But as Tim’s story illustrates, even large companies with fully-staffed HR teams still struggle with the process.
Employees who are laid off or fired get a handshake and an NDA. But when a top performer quits, the organization springs into action like a jilted lover, desperate to know what it could have done differently.
Even when employers show up on time, exit interviews usually only happen for employees who resign, and even then, only if their manager will miss them. Employees who are laid off or fired get a handshake and an NDA. But when a top performer quits, the organization springs into action like a jilted lover, desperate to know what it could have done differently.
Policies that limit exit interviews to high-performing employees don’t just send mixed messages. They also foster a unique form of ignorance: one that can cause critical, widespread issues to go unseen until a calamity brings them to light. And they’re rooted in a common and relatable feature of human frailty: the desire to sweep failure under the rug.
We’re talking about survivorship bias: the cognitive mistake of limiting data to success stories. Survivorship bias is so pervasive that The Art of Thinking Clearly, an entire book on bad judgment, devotes its first chapter to the subject. It’s why customer testimonials are so persuasive, and why lots of people believe dropping out is the key to success (if you only look at Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, it seems like a great plan.)
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This selective listening is encouraged by guidance from the Society for Human Resource Management that exit interviews “should be reserved for voluntary separations, because issues raised by layoffs and terminations for cause will require a special approach.” Exactly what kind of approach is left as an exercise for the reader.
It’s rare to find organizations that interview every departing employee, but they exist. Take Belgian digital agency iCapps. According to the company’s HR leader, Mieke van Alphen, every departure “is both regrettable and non-regrettable.”
During exit interviews, van Alphen frames the conversation with care. “There’s nothing you can say to ruin [our relationship],” she says, adding “This is a moment for us to learn, to be truly open, and to let you know you're welcome here, even if you're not part of our team.” All employees receive a gift card on their way out, though in some cases, their team will choose something even more personal.
Laid-off employees have shared valuable insights with van Alphen in the past, even about the factors that led to their dismissal. Describing a past employer that laid off a department due to weak demand for its product, she said the team “saw it coming,” leading the company to question how well it understood its customers. At some point, she said, ”we have to ask employees, what is the market telling us?”
While van Alphen’s approach may strike some as obvious, it’s far from common sense. When I asked HR and engineering leaders if they interviewed laid-off employees, the response was lukewarm. Some worried about asking for feedback during a tense termination meeting, or that an unhappy employee would use their interview to sow distrust. Discussing an employee who suffered from an anxiety disorder, one leader warned of legal risks if managers “indicate a connection between performance and mental health.” Another wondered if employees might complain on Glassdoor about being pressured into sharing. (All of the quotes from these leaders came from private Slack communities that only allow sharing without attribution.)
These concerns are valid, but they’re not insurmountable. An experienced outside moderator can validate employees’ feelings and solicit feedback without overstepping legal boundaries. Waiting a few weeks to request exit feedback can give everyone time to cool off and bring a fresh perspective. And employers can avoid appearing coercive by making it clear that the feedback is both voluntary and valued by leadership. It never hurts to offer a parting gift—or even cash—as a token of appreciation for sharing honest feedback at a difficult time.
“We often found we’d receive more straightforward and honest feedback in writing, and more openness to a written interview than an in-person conversation.”
Not all exit feedback has to happen in person, either. Employers should consider offering both a written exit survey and a face-to-face interview, spaced a few weeks apart. As another HR leader pointed out, “We often found we’d receive more straightforward and honest feedback in writing, and more openness to a written interview than an in-person conversation.” For companies that already run engagement surveys, an exit survey also signals that management isn’t afraid to get critical feedback in writing.
Effective leadership takes focus, and many founders interpret that to mean “ignore the haters.” That might be good advice for social media. But in the workplace, turning a blind eye to feedback from any source is a risky gamble. Describing another past employer, van Alphen recalled, “[In some cases], the reason a person didn't fit in was because we, as a company, did some things wrong, either in our hiring process or in the way we communicate.”
Did employees who were “managed out” struggle because they didn’t have what it takes to succeed? Or were they set up to fail? And if they were always a bad fit, whose fault is it: the employee, or the hiring manager?
Of course, persuading leaders to consider all exit feedback—not just the good stuff—is easier said than done. Survivorship bias is so common precisely because it helps us avoid uncomfortable feelings. But engaging honestly with employees requires asking tough questions and facing hard truths.
Did employees who were “managed out” struggle because they didn’t have what it takes to succeed? Or were they set up to fail? And if they were always a bad fit, whose fault is it: the employee, or the person who hired them? In a world where managers at one of the largest global retailers deliberately hire people with the intent to fire them later, these are reasonable questions.
Work doesn't always end on good terms, and even under ideal circumstances, the final weeks can be tough. A more thoughtful and proactive approach to exit interviews, however, could turn a bittersweet end into something more like catharsis.
And when the labor market tightens—as it always does, eventually—those employees’ opinions can be decisive. As Tim said, reflecting on the messy state of his offboarding: “It’s like breaking up with a significant other: do you want them to trash talk you? Maybe it doesn’t matter if you move to another city. But if you’re in the same friend group, it impacts your reputation.”
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