Why employees don’t tell the truth in exit interviews
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Why employees don’t tell the truth in exit interviews

Exit interviews are great in theory. The idea is to approach people at a time when they’re likely to be frank, and learn how they really feel about your organization’s practices and culture. This is precious knowledge in terms of workplace improvement and employee retention.

But in practice, here’s what often happens:

Interviewer: “Why are you leaving?’

Departing employee: “XYZ Inc. offered me a great job.”

Interviewer: “Did we do something to make you feel ignored or unwanted?”

Employee: “Oh, no. I just thought this new job would help me learn and grow.”

Interviewer: “Did you feel supported by your direct supervisor?”

Employee: “She was fine.”

So what did the interviewer learn? Not much.

The real story

Exit interviews are predicated on the assumption that employees who no longer have a job to protect will be candid with you. But most aren’t. They don’t want to be seen as badmouthing your organization or your people because they have nothing to gain by it. Why would they burn bridges, especially when they might need references sometime in the future?

Research confirms that employees often don’t tell the real story in exit interviews. One study, led by a professor at City University of New York, looked at a group of employees who quit jobs at a clothing factory. In exit interviews, they were asked their reasons for leaving. Then six months later they were asked again in mailed questionnaires.

What they revealed in the questionnaires was quite different from what they’d said walking out the door. For instance, the main reason cited on the spot was “needed at home.” Some 30 percent of employees gave that reason. But in the questionnaire, that figure was only 15 percent. At the time of their resignation, 5 percent of employees cited production pressures, but in the questionnaire, 20 percent did. And while only one employee cited friction with colleagues or supervisors when leaving, 13 percent gave that reason in the questionnaire.

Employees didn’t feel free to talk about problems at work – like harsh pressures or bad bosses – at the time they quit. But later, those inhibitions weren’t as strong.

1-to-10 

Luckily, there’s a simple technique that will help you get better results in exit interviews — without having to send out questionnaires six months after the fact. Ask employees questions they can answer on a scale of 1 to 10, as in:

  • On a scale of 1-to-10, how friendly is the environment here? Or
  • On a scale of 1-to-10, how would you rate our organization at developing its people?

This kind of scale is known as a Likert scale, after the social psychologist who developed it.

Likert scales are used to measure attitudes among groups like employees, consumers, and voters. And research shows that 10-point scales do better at teasing out people’s real opinions than shorter scales, like 5-point ones.

Using the scale

Let’s suppose that in the interview we saw earlier, the interviewer was using the 10-point scale. He asks the departing employee, “On a scale of 1-to-10, how supportive was your boss?”

The interviewer doesn’t know it yet, but the question touches on a key point — this employee is actually leaving because she feels her boss is a know-it-all who talks down to his subordinates.

So she rates him at 6. She considers giving him a 2, which is what she really thinks. But she decides it’s more polite to give him an above average rating — not a great one — and that’s where 6 comes from.

Because the interviewer has some experience with 10-point scales, he understands what 6 really means. It’s lukewarm at best, and it probably means the departing employee had trouble with her boss. But what was the nature of the trouble? Here’s where another 1-to-10 question comes in. The interviewer says: “Everyone deserves a 10 for a boss. Can you describe the qualities that would make your next boss a 10?”

The departing employee, freed from the constraints of talking about her actual ex-boss, might say: “A 10 would see my work as very important. She’d tell me what I’m doing right, as well as what I’m doing wrong. She’d know my career goals and help me achieve them.”

With that answer the employee has revealed what she found lacking in her boss, and why she left — which is what the interviewer was trying to find out in the first place.


This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Effective Exit Interviews: How to Find Out the Real Reason Employees Leave.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning module are based on the following research studies:

Lefkowitz, J. and Katz, M. (1969). Validity of Exit Interviews. Personnel Psychology, 1969, 22, 445-455.

Preston, C., Colman, A. (2000) Optimal number of response categories in Rating Scales: reliability, validity, discriminating power, and respondent preferences. Acta Psychologica, 104, 1-15.

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