For years I was frustrated by exit interviews. I had a list of questions I was supposed to ask departing employees, but they always gave me safe, canned answers.

I remember one guy who was widely known to absolutely despise his boss, but when I asked him why he was leaving, he said, “I really like this place, but I got a really great offer from this other company.” I asked him point blank whether his relationship with his boss influenced his decision. “Not really,” he lied.

You can’t blame people for lying in exit interviewers. They have nothing to gain from being truthful, and everything to lose. And yet you really need the information they’re concealing.

Departing employees can alert you to bad bosses, harassment issues that could trigger lawsuits, pay practices that drive away good people, poor communication practices that erode morale and productivity, and much more.

So how do you get people to talk? You allow them to answer in code.

The secret is the “1-10 Technique.”

Imagine you asked a person, “On a scale of one to 10, how would you rate your boss when it comes to fairness?” If the employee liked his boss, he’d say nine or 10. If he really hated her, he’d be too diplomatic to give her a bad rating. He’s give a “safe” answer, like a six or a seven.

The person has just told you, in code, that he was unhappy with his boss.

You could follow up with a question like, “In your next job, what qualities will you be looking for that would allow you to give him or her a 10?” The person could safely reply something like this: “I guess I’d want someone who never played favorites and promoted based on merit.”

He just told you, in code, WHY he didn’t like his boss. If you hear this from one employee, it might not mean much. But if you hear it again, and again, you’ve probably got a manager who’s playing favorites and causing good employees to leave your company.

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