Exit Interviews Reveal What Your Employees Really Think. Are You Ready?

Shane Atchison | CEO at POSSIBLE

Whenever I’m asked about my metrics for success, I have an unusual answer. After the obvious stuff, like financials, I look at what people say in exit interviews. Believe it or not, what people say then might just be the best soft metric for success you can find.

The primary reason for this is culture — which I firmly believe is vital to success. And if my firm belief doesn’t convince you, research published in the Journal of Financial Economics and MIT Economics should. Multiple studies have proved that companies that show up in lists like Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For financially outperform those that don’t.

That said, no one has invented the perfect culture-o-meter yet. Some try gauging it with things like employee-satisfaction surveys or retention metrics. But neither of those is foolproof, and the latter can be especially misleading. People stay in jobs they hate for a lot of reasons, not least because no one else wants them. Exit interviews are a better success metric, and here’s why.

Leaving a job doesn’t mean you hate a company anymore. The average stay at a company nowadays is only 4.6 years. In faster-moving industries like mine, that number is much less. We lose great people who like us all the time. They leave because they feel they’re stagnating, or somebody else offers a position or salary we can’t match. They’ll also leave because that’s what career counselors advise them to do. Seriously. People used to tell you to stay a certain amount of time in a job, even if you’re not happy — now they want you to leave no matter what.

Exit interviews are honest, if you handle them correctly. You should never be hostile to a departing employee. Instead, show some compassion and interest for what’s going on in their lives. Typically, the reasons they’re leaving are complicated and not just about you. If you approach it from their perspective, they’ll often open up. If they don’t like your culture, they’ll let you know in some way — perhaps politely, perhaps not.

Ex-employees are your best (or worst) ambassadors. We’ve all heard of the creepy company that every ex-employee trashes. Or the sweatshop with career opportunities or the fun company that just doesn’t pay enough. The sources for almost all of these things are ex-employees. When people leave a company, they’re going to talk about it, and they’ll be a trusted source for anyone who trusts them. So it’s good to know what people will be saying about you in the future.

Of course, we want every employee to love us so much that they just can’t quit us. Though in the end, that’s a little silly. Even companies with the most satisfied people in the world, like Google and Zappos, have ex-employees. In today’s marketplace, people will leave — and you really want to know what they’re saying when they do. And the only way to find that out is to ask.