All the industry plaudits that apparel brand Patagonia has earned with its upfront stance on environmental issues are reflected throughout the firm in an uncommon level of staff loyalty, according to a 20 March column from Quartz at Work. 
Remarkably, Patagonia’s workforce has an annual turnover of just 4%. As a consequence, its HR chief Dean Carter notes, exit interviews are so few and far between that when they happen at all, they tend to be rather emotional. “Sometimes, we’ll both be crying over where we both missed the experience,” he tells the business journal.
As befits a company that has distinguished itself as one with a track record of integrity, its approach to exit interviews is fittingly honest and direct. “I want to hear their story,” Carter explains. “My first question is not ‘Why did you leave?’ I ask: ‘Why did you join? What compelled you to come to Patagonia, to leave your other job, or your family [firm], or whatever it was?’ After that it’s, ‘Did we do that? What was the experience we delivered for you? Where was the difference in that?’”
Carter’s take on exit interviews as opportunities for firms to engage in critical reflection is refreshing – but, according to Sydney Morning Herald workplace agony uncle Jonathan Rivett, such appetite for self-analysis is rare.
In a 14 March answer to a reader’s query,  Rivett argues that, from the perspective of employees, exit interviews serve two, main purposes: “The first is catharsis. Unburdening yourself of frustration and perhaps even anger to someone who isn’t a friend or confidant can be wonderfully freeing. The second is that the criticism will, theoretically, help the organisation you’re leaving improve, making sure employees of the future are less likely to encounter what you did.”
Whether or not the unburdening element actually works for you, Rivett notes, “is an entirely subjective thing”. However, he points out, the company-improvement part “very often doesn’t happen.”
To back up that assertion, he quotes organisational and counselling psychologist Jasmine Sliger, who contends that while the material that emerges from exit interviews is supposed to be private, that is often not the case. Indeed, she says, “the information is [typically] used as dirt against another manager, or can be traded among senior managers”.
With that in mind, Sliger advises outgoing employees not to “spill their guts” in exit interviews, “because it can affect your reputation and your ability to network if you burn your bridges or the industry is too small”. Instead, she encourages staff to vent their spleens on rate-your-employer sites.
This seems a rather sad comment on the current state of exit interviews, with little hope to sow the seeds of company improvement – particularly since firms can ignore rate-your-employer sites simply by not looking at them.
How can these golden opportunities to gather staff feedback be positioned to work in the interests of all concerned?
The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “There’s something about the concept of the exit interview that evokes that awful expression ‘closing the loop’. It conveys the notion that somehow, unless the process has taken place, the whole business of leaving isn’t finished – but once it’s done, that employee has been dealt with from induction to exit and everything is tied off. You can tell that, at some point, powers unknown deemed that system to be best practice, so it simply became embedded in the way we do things.
“However, the quality of exit interviews will depend very heavily upon who is conducting them – and who they are for. Based upon the Quartz piece, we can see that, at Patagonia, the exit interviews are for Patagonia. The company is coming to the table from a position of confidence: ‘People rarely leave us, so we’re genuinely interested to know what’s up here.’ Other, more defensive organisations would be far more reluctant to gather negative data. Perhaps they don’t know what to do with it. Or perhaps they don’t have any systems in place to address individuals who have decided to leave after having difficult experiences.”
Cooper notes: “That interview is a moment where people can begin to repair relationships if they haven’t been great. It can help the exiting individual go forward with confidence, and a much better self-opinion – or, at least, a sanguine attitude to the prevailing circumstances. Perhaps it will help the leaver and the company to see that there was a mutual mismatch of expectations – but the leaver can rest assured that the company did its best for them from the point of resignation. You don’t want the people who are leaving you to be resentful or bearing a grudge, because those sentiments could become subject to wider discussion.”
To nurture and protect your personal brand, she explains, “you want to put as positive a spin on your career moves as you possibly can. If an employer you’ve just left has handled any difficulties graciously, then you are more likely to land at your next berth with a sense that you’ve healed, or have begun to: all the better for your new chapter to get off on the right footing. So, they are all ways in which exit interviews can benefit the individual.”
Turning to organisations, Cooper says: “We all know that it’s incredibly expensive to replace people when they’ve gone. In the course of our research on this area, we have put the cost at around £30,000 per individual. We know that employee retention is often used as a measure of loyalty, as per Patagonia. So why would you not use this opportunity to ask, ‘What could we do better?’
“Design the questions so that everyone concerned can tell that the point of the interview is not to apportion blame. As we suggested this week in our blog on performance-related pay, there may be systems and processes in place that are companywide, which line managers have to implement. Those systems may become an object of dispute between a worker and a manager – yet may be entirely outside that manager’s control.
“This will be where a well-structured exit interview can help to clear the air, while providing scope for the leaver to critique processes that, in their view, aren’t working. So as a leader, you can gather all sorts of data, if you are willing to take the good with the bad. There will be things you may not want to hear – but they are what you’ll need to hear, more than a series of bashful platitudes.”
Cooper adds: “Changing jobs is always a big moment, and often a real wrench. So the exit process should be handled with sensitivity, expertise and kindness. There is a mutual benefit here: as the exiting individual achieves a sense of closure, the organisation has a golden opportunity to use what it’s being told in an open-minded way.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on understanding HR
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