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The Best Way to Get Candid Feedback on Your Culture

By Scott Seroka

Measuring and monitoring the health and performance of your culture, which drives productivity and operational performance, cannot be achieved simply by getting feedback from your people during annual reviews or optimistically counting on them to bring urgent matters to your attention.

One of the most popular strategies to measure the health and performance of your culture is to seek insights and feedback from employees through annual or semi-annual internal culture assessments. These are done through a combination of questionnaires and one-on-one interviews.

However, as effective as these assessments are, they may not always paint the full picture of issues that may be contributing to possible dysfunctions in the workplace. Some people may be afraid to say what they really think needs to be said in fear of possible retribution or being labeled as a company snitch. There are ways to minimize this fear, but the reality is that you cannot make it disappear entirely.

To compensate for this, consider formalizing and perfecting your exit interview process as part of your retention and continuous improvement strategies. Give it as much attention as you do to the interview questions you use to screen candidates for hire.

Let’s go over the critical elements of an effective exit interview strategy:

  1. When to schedule the exit interview. Exit interviews should never happen within that two-week timeframe between the submission of the employee’s resignation and the farewell lunch on his or her last day. The reason is that most people are very anxious when submitting their resignation, and they want to get the process over with as quickly as possible. It doesn’t matter how good the relationship is between the manager and the employee, delivering bad news that will throw a wrench into the company is devastating.

So, as the exiting employee is likely already nervous about submitting his or her resignation, and you as the employer on the receiving end of the resignation may be in a state of shock or surprise, immediately switching gears into an exit interview would be awkward and unproductive. Emotions are running too high, and the risk of the conversation becoming contentious is high, and neither one of you wants to say something you may regret later.

According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, Making Exit Interviews Count, the ideal time to facilitate an exit interview is one month after the employee’s departure. This makes sense. The conversation will be more relaxed, and like I referenced earlier, potentially strong emotions harbored while still on the company’s payroll will have dissipated. It will provide for a much more productive and valuable dialogue.

  1. Ideally, the CEO or president of the company or division head should be the person doing the exit interview. However, the likelihood of the former employee agreeing to meet will largely depend on how the invitation to the meeting is presented. If human resources reaches out on behalf of the CEO to schedule a time to meet, the request may fall on deaf ears and blind eyes as he or she will feel they aren’t important enough to be contacted directly by the CEO.

More appropriately, the CEO himself should reach out with the message of wanting to learn more about why the employee left. In this scenario, the former employee will be more inclined to accept the meeting.

Now if you, as the CEO, have unflattering feelings toward the employee, keep in mind that he or she seemed to be a good hire and fit in the beginning, and you need to know what went wrong that led to his or her departure.

  1. Think about retaining an outside consultant experienced in conducting exit interviews. Consider the following benefits:
  • The expertise of knowing what questions to ask to determine what went wrong in the employer/employee relationship
  • The ability to ascertain whether or not the employee may have been a bad hire
  • If the employee was indeed a good hire and internal factors pushed him or her out the door, such as dysfunctional leadership, uncompetitive compensation or culture, the consultant can advise the employer of what was learned so that the CEO can take steps to prevent further attrition.

Exit interviews are being employed (no pun intended) at more and more organizations as a strategy for living a continuous improvement culture. The good news is that ex-employees are typically more than willing to engage in productive exit interview conversations. All you need to do is ask.