Exit interviews can say a lot about a company

    OfficeTeam, a Menlo Park, Calif., staffing company for administrative workers, says that its survey of 150 executives found that 19 percent of companies doing exit interviews with departing employees always act on the information they learn, while 57 percent say they act on that information "somewhat frequently."

That quickly leads to the question: Why didn't these companies pay attention to these employees while they were on the payroll?

"In some instances, exit interviews are an admission that your company is closed off to employees," says Ed Rehkopf, a longtime hospitality executive based in North Carolina and author of the book "Leadership on the Line" (Harvard Business School Press, $26). "Simply having that policy says your company has been deficient in listening to its employees."

Exit interviews have long been held up as a sign that companies welcome a candid assessment of their operations and are willing to listen to suggestions that could help them operate more efficiently.

Diane Domeyer, executive director of OfficeTeam, says that soon-to-be ex-employees should take the time to share their insights when leaving a company.

"It's not always easy to offer constructive criticism, but this feedback is valuable to the employer, as long as it's delivered diplomatically," she says.

The problem is, exit interviews are a hit-or-miss proposition. Not all companies do them, nor do most of the companies have a uniform way of handling them.

"In some companies, they are more of a formality," says Rehkopf. "They are often done by someone in administration, usually someone in human resources. These people are not necessarily in a position to fix any problems they may discover in the exit interview."

He says most companies don't do a good job of regularly soliciting employee feedback and considering it.

Every employer he's ever worked for has had an open-door policy, even though Rehkopf admits that few of them meant it.

"More than an open-door policy what you need are managers and leaders with open minds," he says. "Those are the kind of people who care about how the company is being run and really do have an interest in making it better.

"As a manager, if I heard about the same problem more than once, I'd want to fix it. Unfixed problems fester and continue to bubble under the surface."

The nature of management is all about developing good relationships between supervisors and employees. Rehkopf views it essential that managers develop tools to understand how their employees feel about their jobs, so that they can develop smoother operating systems or remove obstacles that might stand in the way or productivity.

"I think if a supervisor wants to hear the truth, they're going to figure out a way to hear it," he says. "I don't think they are going to sit back and wait for someone to quit to figure out what they need to be doing."

Yet, Rehkopf estimates that only about 10 percent of supervisors foster environments that help them create better workplaces.

"This is an important thing, particularly with front-line managers," he says. "Managers and leaders need to understand how to build relationships with workers, how to encourage them and motivate them to do their best."

Yet work environments that don't support a candid flow of information back and forth are hampering in themselves.

Rehkopf says employee feedback is too crucial for companies to ignore and that it shouldn't wait until someone is leaving the company to glean the thoughts of employees.

"The exit interview is not the tip of the iceberg," he says. "The exit interview is the back-end of the iceberg."

© Copley News Service

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