I vividly recall the most frustrating exit interview I ever did. A top performer accepted a job at a competitive company and temporarily threw our department into chaos. It wasn’t so much that the guy’s work wouldn’t get done or that we’d feel any tangible pain. It was simply the shock of seeing the guy go. Everybody liked him. He was widely respected. He was “one of us.” So why was he leaving?

I asked him point blank and he hemmed and hawed. “You know, it was nothing specific. I’m just restless.” Or “They offered me more money and it’s a little closer to my house.”

I pushed harder:

ME: You were obviously unhappy here. Why?

HIM: No, really. I wasn’t unhappy.

ME: Were you treated unfairly by your boss?

HIM: No, not at all.

ME: Do you feel your salary was fair?

HIM: Yes, that wasn’t a big factor.

I knew in my gut he had a specific reason to hold back, so I went on and on like this, making him increasingly uncomfortable. Truth be told, I was uncomfortable too. It’s not pleasant trying to pry a secret out of somebody who’s determined not to reveal it.

Let’s step back for a minute and ask, “What’s in it for the employee to fess up?” Absolutely nothing. The person doesn’t want to badmouth anybody. And he certainly doesn’t want to burn bridges. That’s why the point of departure for every exit interview needs to be that you’ll rarely get any useful information if you ask people point blank why they’re leaving. It’s too risky. They’ll clam up almost every time.

The good news is that there’s a technique that will get you to the truth, or at least very close to it, without any fear or embarrassment at all. It involves a simple, but completely different, mode of questioning from the one I used in the example above. Here it is in a nutshell: Ask questions using a 1-to-10 scale, as in “On a scale of 1 to 10, how well did we do on setting long-range goals for you?”

Smart people won’t give their bosses low marks. But those who are unhappy probably won’t be handing out 9s or 10s either. So they can send you a message without getting into trouble: “Long range goals? Oh, I’d say at least a six. No, make it a seven.”

It’s really a six, of course, and a six roughly translates to: “My boss thinks a long-term goal is where he’s going on vacation this summer. But you didn’t hear it from me.”

photo credit: James~Quinn

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