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Getting the scoop: The value of exit interviews

Depending on your vantage point, exit interviews can be an effective way to get information that will improve the workplace, or they’re a waste of time that some employees resent. The idea behind exit interviews is to help employers understand why employees leave so that the employer can make improvements to reduce turnover and boost morale. An employee who is moving on may feel freer to talk about problems than one who might feel the need to suffer in silence.

But the wisdom of exit interviews is also questioned by some. The interviews were even branded a “worthless HR activity” in a May blog post by Barbara Milhizer, a partner with human resources consulting firm PeopleResults. She maintains that the reasons for conducting exit interviews are good, but evidence is lacking that an employer’s valid objectives are achieved through the typical process.

Instead of the traditional exit interview format, Milhizer suggests an exit conversation in which the departing employee and “someone of consequence in that employee’s career” sit down for a talk that focuses on the employee’s contribution to the employer and provides an opportunity for feedback.

Likewise, Martin Yate, author of numerous books on careers, advises departing employees to avoid exit interviews. In a 2012 blog post, he told employees “you have no control over the understanding, interpretation, or use of anything you might say, so speaking truth to power rarely has any short- or long-term benefits for you.”

Still, the purpose behind exit interviews can be vital to employers, and from an employment law standpoint, employers have important reasons for conducting them.

Good reasons
Karen Clay, an attorney with The Kullman Firm in Jackson, Mississippi, says an exit interview can be “a cost effective way to gain valuable information to improve a business.” Plus, it can help an employer improve its relationship with employees in the future.

“If you have one employee leaving who criticizes his supervisor for being difficult to work with as one of his reasons for leaving, the supervisor may respond that the departing employee is just a ‘complainer.’” Clay says. “But when the second, third, and fourth employee leave because of problems with the same supervisor, obviously there is something going on that needs to be explored by the company.”

Susan H. Hiser, a shareholder with Vercruysse Murray & Calzone in Bingham Farms, Michigan, agrees that exit interviews can be useful, but care must be taken. “If the employee has been terminated involuntarily, be careful not to turn the meeting into an argument as to the reasons for the termination,” she says. “Explain fully any benefits that the employee is entitled to receive and give the employee an opportunity to have his or her say, paying close attention to what is being said. Take notes and be courteous.”

Potential legal threats
In addition to gaining insight into why an employee is leaving, HR needs to be on the lookout for any legal hazards that come to light during an exit interview, such as an employee alleging unlawful harassment or some other issue that carries legal consequences.

“If an employer is made aware of a potential legal claim, it should conduct an internal investigation to determine if the claim has merit and should also issue a litigation hold to make sure that any documents, e-mails, etc. are maintained,” Hiser says. “The employer should also contact its legal department or outside counsel to make them aware of the claim. Depending on whether the claim is deemed to have merit, the company might want to consider early resolution with the employee.”

Clay also advises employers to keep the same legal issues in mind during an exit interview that are important during any interview. “Stay away from asking questions about the departing employee’s protected classifications or those of anyone with whom he worked,” she says. “It is best to have questions prepared in advance with a clear goal in mind: Why is this employee leaving, and what can we do to make our company better.”

Refusing exit interviews
An employer may have legitimate reasons for wanting an exit interview with a departing employee, but Clay says that the employer has little recourse if the employee refuses.

Hiser agrees that the employer may not be able to force cooperation from a departing employee, but there may be some situations in which employers have signed agreements with employees, or they enter into agreements in conjunction with severance offerings that require employees to cooperate with the company on employment matters. “If this is the case, then you may seek to enforce that agreement with the employee,” she says.

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