10/08/2014 03:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Are You Learning Too Much at Exit Interviews?

Hotel managers have to check online rants to keep abreast of problems since so few people actually complain directly when they're at the property, according to a recent New York Times article. Back when I was more involved in the day-to-day running of our agency, I would frequently do exit interviews with professional staff who resigned to take jobs elsewhere and was often astounded by some of the things I heard. "Did you ever mention this to anyone?" I would ask. Almost always the answer was no. Ironically, though we were a communications consulting firm, it seemed like we had very few channels for people to tell us they were unhappy until after they had found another job.

Most times they were complaining to their spouses, friends, coworkers and just about anyone who would listen except the ones who could actually make things better: their managers and the people running the business. (If you have a problem with the people running the business, then your best option is probably to look for another job.)


But what if employees were asked to share any concerns before they were in the process of leaving? Like many companies, we did performance reviews each year. In most cases, these reviews were often looked upon as an unwelcome chore. And we struggled with the employee feedback part of the review. At first, employees had a chance to write a response after the review that was included in their HR files. Then for a while, so-called "360 reviews" became the norm until we realized that the managers who usually got the best reviews from their staff were often more popular because they weren't particularly strong managers. If you're really doing a good job at managing, it's doubtful 100% of the employees are going to have a 100% favorable response.

Our next version was designed to save time: a fill-in the blanks system where both the reviewer and the employer rated particular skills and attributes and then at the review would see how closely their perceptions tended to match up. That usually ended up demotivating the employee since most people inevitably rated themselves much higher than their reviewer.

So this year when we set about the task of revising the performance review process, we charted a new course. This time we started by asking employees how the past year had been for them.

  • What do you like best about your job? Least?
  • Where has the job met your expectations and where has it not?
  • What could the company do to help make you more productive and efficient?
  • What do you want to do next? Which assignments could we offer that you'd find very motivating and exciting?

We were amazed at what we started to learn from our staff once given the opportunity to talk about themselves. We began to treat each review session as an interview with a new employee, learning more about the friction points in their current conditions and their goals for future growth.

For our evaluation part, we eliminated any multiple-choice rating. Instead we reduced topics to about a dozen broad categories, forcing the reviewer to think more by writing out brief commentary. To reduce the pressure to write more than a few lines, we gave them a small box. A few concise sentences can have a lot more impact than pages of exposition.

Most importantly, we positioned the entire written package as a discussion-starter for all parties involved. Reviews had to be done in person--never by phone--and for senior executives it had to be done out of the office, preferably over coffee, drinks or a meal.

It's still a bit early to say whether we'll cut back on all of the surprise revelations during exit interviews, but already we've gotten some great feedback and have made changes to our processes and procedures as a result. Even better, the staff has told us they appreciate that we're interested in hearing their opinion of the company--and not just the company's opinion of them--during the annual review.

Is this the formula that will work best for you? Not necessarily. But positioning the performance review as a two-way communication could be an important starting point, particularly for any business where employee retention is a key objective. It takes time, but less time than you'll spend replacing them if the first time you hear about their concerns is on their way out the door.