HR departments seek feedback from exiting employees on their employment experience. Some conduct live interviews. Some, electronic surveys. Some, both. Whatever the mode for collecting feedback, HR wants to know what worked, what didn’t work, what motivated them to leave, what could have influenced them to stay.
Most exit surveys will provide space for the departing employee to provide open-field commentary on a variety of employment subjects. It is in these sections where we often learn about their leaders; the good, the bad and the ugly are revealed.
I reviewed the combined results of multiple exit surveys recently and was stricken by the range of responses about the ex-employees’ leaders, from scathing criticism to hearty praise.
As I flipped through the positive and negative comments from these former employees I wondered if their leaders would be surprised by their reviews, or expecting them. And for those comments that were dripping with disapproval, I wondered if those leaders could have saved that employment relationship if only they had been alerted sooner.
If you work in leadership it is likely you are familiar with the assertion that employees leave their managers, not their companies. The claim is you may work for the greatest company in the world, but if your manager is lousy you are not long for the door. Whether backed by scientific research, personal experience, or gut, most agree this claim is true.
But if we are blind to how our leadership style is distressing an employee, then we are not in a position to fix things. As a result, we lose good people. And let’s face it, we all have blind spots. We may think everything is coming up roses, but in reality our employees are only feeling the thorns.
In his oft-quoted book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey suggests that we “begin with the end in mind.” In that spirit I offer this simple four-step strategy for avoiding the exit survey blind-side, and keeping good people:
1. Plan what you want the exit survey to say
This step is in the same vein as planning your legacy, or what you want carved on your tombstone. You choose for yourself, but here’s an example of what I’d like to see on my employees’ exit surveys:
- He trusted me to do good work
- He challenged me and made be better
- He made me feel great about my contributions
- He asked for my input and made me feel in on things
- We accomplished a lot with his leadership
- I hope to lead like him
Write your plan down, then share it with your employees. Say, “If you leave my team someday, this is what I’d like for you to be able to say about your experience working with me. If now, or at any point in the future, you feel I’m not worthy of these remarks, please tell me.”
2. Create an environment where employees can tell you anything
Many unhappy employees will wait for the exit survey for their chance to bear their souls. They think there is no retribution for doing so, as there may have been while on the job, so they spill. Well, that’s too late.
In step 1 you ask the employees to tell you if you’re not living up to your plan. But if the environment you’ve created is not conducive to that kind of upward feedback, then you have more work to do.
When employees offer their sincere feedback, reply with a genuine “thank you, let me think about that a bit” and then go away to self-reflect on what they said. You may ask follow-up questions to better understand their points. But do not disagree or offer an excuse. That is equivalent to saying “Thank you, but your opinion is incorrect.” By doing so, we send cues that we do not in fact appreciate or want their inputs, and soon after we’ll stop receiving them.
In reality this step is not a ‘gimme,’ because it comes down to style and a little luck. No matter how open and accepting you are, some employees will simply not tender their reviews. In all cases, and especially when they’re tight-lipped, try step 3.
3. Ask for targeted feedback
When seeking our employees’ feedback we have to be specific. By asking “what feedback do you have for me” we leave things open-ended and hear “nothing, everything is fine” in return. This is like throwing a dart in the air and hoping it hits a target, any target.
We get a little closer when we ask “what can I do better,” but we still miss the mark. This is like throwing a dart in the direction of a dartboard with our eyes closed.
If we want to hit the target and obtain some real actionable input, we must to give our employees something to work with. If I asked you right now, you’d probably be able to offer up at least one of your leadership behaviors that you suspect is not working well with your employees. Perhaps you think you’re lousy at running meetings. Or maybe you’re awful at giving directions on new tasks. Whatever it is, hang that up as your target and ask your employees to take aim.
Say, “One area where I think I can do better is giving directions on new tasks. What has been your experience with this?” This targeted question gives your employees permission to have an opinion and focuses their thoughts on something they know about. In return, you get valuable input, they feel safe offering it, and they’re likely ready to spill on other leadership issues.
4. Get the exit survey results and check on the gaps
Once you have steps 1 through 3 running like clock-work you need to check your results. Despite your excellent leadership, you are still likely to lose employees. Remember: death, taxes, and turnover…
First chance you get, ask HR for the results of the exit survey. If some or all of the results don’t line up with your plans from step 1, rinse and repeat. If they do line up, rinse and repeat anyway. Because we can never stop improving.
This strategy isn’t foolproof, and it won’t work for everyone. But it is worth a try, because the exit survey is the last place where we want to discover leadership issues that could have been handled with a little awareness.