The best idea I ever got for conducting exit interviews came to me when somebody asked me to give a reference for a former employee.
The woman called and explained to me that she was thinking about hiring a guy named Kevin, who’d been a marketer on my team until three months ago. Kevin wasn’t very talented. He quit after being demoted. The fact that he gave me as a reference tells you how few people believed he was cut out for a marketing job.
But I had no intention of telling the woman that. I liked Kevin and didn’t want to wreck his future. Nor did I want to get sued. So when she ask me some general questions early on I said things like, “Kevin’s a hard worker,” or “Kevin got along great with his colleagues.”
But then she asked me, “On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is off-the-charts good and 1 is very poor, how would you rate Kevin’s marketing skills.”
That question REALLY threw me. She was asking me to be very specific in an area where I didn’t want to be specific. I did a very quick mental calculus and decided I wasn’t going to crush poor Kevin’s chances by saying 3 or 4. Nor was I going to lie to the woman and say 9 or 10. I was going to weasel out and fudge it. I said, “Oh, Kevin was a 6, maybe a 7.”
I found out later that Kevin didn’t get the job. And my “6 or maybe 7” probably did him in. I felt okay giving him a “6 or maybe a 7” because it is, after all, above average. And who’s going to sue me for saying they’re above average? But what I’d done is send a message to the woman, in code, that Kevin wasn’t very good. She wanted to hire “8 maybe 9” marketers, and I’d signaled to her that Kevin wasn’t in that league.
This 1 to 10 technique works brilliantly in exit interviews as well. That’s another business situation where you want to get information out of someone who has zero incentive to give it to you. A departing employee – especially a talented one who you didn’t want to leave – would not likely say she’s leaving because she hated her boss. Why burn that bridge? But if you asked her, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how much did you respect the judgment of your boss,” she might tell you, “Oh, 6 maybe 7.” And that would say it all.
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