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Exit-essentialist philosophical musings

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Sometimes you should document.

Last week I suggested that if you’re being backstabbed, scapegoated or otherwise hung out to dry, documentation won’t help you.

Several members of the KJR community pointed out that if you think you might ever file a formal complaint … if, for example, you might involve the EEOC or if things might end up on court for one reason or another … then good documentation is essential.

As long as we’re on the subject of your relationship with your employer going sideways, let’s take a few minutes to talk about your next exit interview.

Here’s what the exit interview’s point is supposed to be: Freed from concerns of reprisals, departing employees are supposedly more likely to provide honest information about their employment experience than those they’re leaving behind.

And so, exit interviews should help HR pinpoint both problem managers and more systemic issues, and in either case to recommend corrective courses of action.

Here’s what actually doesn’t happen, according to “Making Exit Interviews Count” (Everett Spain and Boris Groysberg, Harvard Business Review, April 2016):

“… many companies don’t even conduct these interviews. Some collect exit interview data but don’t analyze it. Some analyze it but don’t share it with the senior line leaders who can act on it. Only a few collect, analyze, and share the data and follow up with action.

Imagine an HR staff member — call her Mary Mencheslaus — charged with conducting exit interviews. Mary is interviewing Wendy Whyme, a five-year employee who tendered her resignation two weeks prior. Whyme explains why she resigned: Gary Gaslight, a top-performing sales rep who employs the unfortunate tactic of taking prospects to strip bars and requiring the whole sales team to come along. Whyme is the third departing employee in as many months to tell the same story.

Mencheslaus documents the interview, writes a summary for Gaslight’s personnel file, and meets with Gaslight’s manager, Fred Foghat, to explain the situation. Foghat explains the consequences of killing golden geese and suggests to Mencheslaus that dropping the whole matter would be best for all concerned.

Mencheslaus next meets with her manager, Sam Sansvertebrae, to inform him of the situation. Sansvertebrae explains that Gaslight, because he’s such a strong rainmaker, is untouchable, that there’s no point in pursuing the matter further, and that Mencheslaus should remove her remarks from Gaslight’s file and drop the issue immediately.

Mencheslaus, being a highly principled individual, refuses and escalates to the head of HR. Shortly thereafter she finds herself looking for her next employment opportunity.

Meanwhile, Foghat lets Gaslight know about his meeting with HR, suggesting he tone things down a bit until it all blows over. In response, Gaslight spreads the word among his personal network that Whyme is bad news and a troublemaker.

If you think the above tale of woe or something similar doesn’t play out, over and over again, throughout the halls of business organizations all over the map … this is just my opinion mind you … you aren’t being paid for your charming naiveté.

Who flubbed the situation, and how?

Whyme‘s mistake wasn’t trusting HR’s discretion. Mencheslaus didn’t mention any names in her documentation or her meeting with Sansvertebrae. Whyme’s mistake was thinking she had any upside for responding honestly and completely in her exit interview.

As a five-year employee she had to understand the company’s management culture well enough to know nobody would care. And she had to know that if anyone reprimanded Gaslight or otherwise called for him to change his stripes, that he would figure out she was a likely informant; and that he was vindictive enough and sufficiently well connected that she was putting her career at risk.

Did Mencheslaus make a mistake? You bet she did. She also had to understand the company’s and HR’s management culture, also Sansvertebrae’s management style. Whatever other actions she took, she should have consulted him before taking any other action. Then, if she decided to escalate in spite of its utterly predictable futility, she’d also have been smart enough to keep personal copies of her documentation regarding the entire sorry episode before doing so, just in case one of Gaslight’s victims decided to take the company to court.

Anyone else? Of course. I hope everyone in the KJR community is savvy enough to recognize that the CEO and board of directors are the source of every aspect of the company culture.

That includes the culture of plausible deniability that’s carefully designed to insulate everyone above Foghat and Sansvertebrae in the management hierarchy from the reality of How We Do Things Around Here.

Comments (21)

  • This is so sad. Utterly accurate, but sad.

  • A reason to tell the truth at an exit interview you might not have considered in your article is that if you are a member of a target group, as she was, telling the truth might make it better for the ones that come after you, by setting precedents others of your group. Also, their allies can use that data for change in the organization, and to protect themselves, even if the miscreants aren’t immediately terminated.

    Besides, everyone can be replaced, rainmaker or not. Bad behavior is no more a requirement for sales, than heroin addiction is a requirement to be a good jazz musician.

    Maintaining good relationships is important, but so is recognizing when good relationships aren’t possible, and your responsibilities require different tactics and behaviors. A minority of humans are just not wired in a way that ever values a 2-way relationship.

    Our previous President and the current Speaker of House seemingly never accepted those truths, and the consequences may yet turn out to be catastrophic.

  • My resignation letters are:

    “This is to inform you my last day will be [date]”

    I defer Exit Interviews. In the case they insist, I give top ratings and put a note in the comments that I filled it out per company policy.

    Everything else is verbal.

    As for “candid assessment” for the company, if they did not care about it while I worked there, they sure would not care once I was gone.

  • 2028: Never accept a ride from a driver operated car.

  • So, the point of the article deviates from the original about keeping documentation and instead focuses on escalating a systemic problem – is this correct?
    Keeping the documentation is still important – consider a merger happening – where does the leadership look for clues about the current staff?

    • Correct. I figured it was important to mention the documentation caveat, but I didn’t want to devote an entire column to a subject I’d already covered in depth.

  • Two things about this post: 1) It’s accurate, and 2) It’s profoundly depressing. Best to avoid working for toxic organizations in the first place, but it can be difficult to determine that ahead of time. And even if we’re told the reality of an organization by Someone Who Should Know, we don’t always believe them. “It’ll be different for me” is easy to think until it’s too late.

  • Despite commenter Bob’s idealistic self-sacrificial attitude about making the future better for others (something that I’ve tried to practice before I leave an organization, but not on my way out the door), commenter Gregory’s observation about how much such a company cares about what you think is far more reflective of organizational reality.

    If you really feel that you need to go on the record, consider doing so anonymously via Glassdoor.com (only don’t jump on there until sufficient time has passed, lest your comments be linked back to your departure).

    If you’re looking at joining an organization, check out the comments about it on Glassdoor (and allow for some idiot comments, just like you do with 1-star Amazon product reviews).

    • Actually, there is no self-sacrifice involved, since, presumably, you are moving on to a new job.

      Just because something may be viewed as idealistic, doesn’t mean that it is not also very practical. People and organizations need facts to separate what might be true personality conflicts from prejudice. The experience of the exiting worker, especially if that person is the member of a target population and/or they also submit documentation, constitute evidence, that with repetition, can show (or disprove) a pattern of unacceptable conduct.

      Just as there will almost always be some who don’t care within an organization, there will also always be some that do. This can help to empower those that do care to persuade the organization to enforce its policies and conform to the appropriate laws.

      As one of the other commentators implied, change can be slow when you try, but change never happens if you never try.

      • In the article, there _is_ self-sacrifice involved, possibly. If the rainmaker is well-connected in the industry or in the region, you get the Whiny,not-to-be-trusted reputation

      • Commenter Bob, I spoke of idealism because of your underlying assumption that there are *almost always* people conducting the exit interviews who both care and who can strongly recommend corrective action without consequence to themselves (via reduced career opportunities, if not dismissal) or to the departed employee (via reputation damage) whose exit interview sparked that recommendation. While I have seen some small organizations where those conditions existed, they were a minority among small organizations, and almost non-existent among medium to large organizations.

        The problem isn’t fundamentally the individuals, it’s the culture, and because very few organizations pay much attention to their culture (let alone skillfully are able to excise cultural dysfunctions), cultural entropy inevitably tends toward increasing dysfunction over time. I’ve seen this over and over again during the past 40 years, I’m sad to say, and am currently observing the same downward spiral of dysfunction at play in my spouse’s place of employment.

        For example, the whole mess at Wells Fargo (with the bogus loans and services scandal) is not an outlier–it’s just the one that came to light because of the regulatory environment. It’s indicative that what went on at Wells Fargo did so despite the fact that those most responsible must have known that all would eventually come to light. That they continued on the path that they did wasn’t because they were evil or extraordinarily stupid, but because they allowed themselves to be corrupted by the prevailing cultural dysfunctions (which were probably ensconced in the executive incentive/bonus system).

        So what organizations need and what they most often get are mostly two different things. To believe otherwise, while optimistic and hopeful, is not realistic. To then expect that all departing employees would (and should) be totally frank and forthcoming during exit interviews for the sake of the company they are leaving (why should they care?) is a huge ask of them, just as it is a huge ask of the exit interviewer to expect that he/she will press the issue on all points reported.

        Yes, sometimes it can all come together for the better, but I wouldn’t recommend betting your professional future on it without overwhelming evidence that your organization is profoundly free of cultural dysfunction.

  • This Harvey Weinstein exactly. But this is still an excellent case for documentation, especially from Mary’s POV, since she now has 3 documented cases of sexual harassment in addition to her own case.

    Fights against injustice can take years, decades, centuries, or longer, with lots and lots of losses along the way. Doesn’t mean they are not worth fighting.

    Besides, Wendy doesn’t want to work with anyone who’d take Gaslight’s side any more than she wanted to work with the slimeball himself.

  • You nailed it! including “if she decided to escalate in spite of its utterly predictable futility, she’d also have been smart enough to keep personal copies of her documentation regarding the entire sorry episode before doing so, just in case one of Gaslight’s victims decided to take the company to court.”

  • Bob, I liked how clearly you drew the contrast between (2) “the way it is” and (1) “the way it spozed to be”. (The latter is a wonderful book, by the way: https://www.amazon.com/Way-Spozed-Be-Innovators-Education/dp/0867094079 ).

    (1) “Freed from concerns of reprisals, departing employees are supposedly more likely to provide honest information about their employment experience than those they’re leaving behind.”

    (2) “Whyme’s mistake was thinking she had any upside for responding honestly and completely in her exit interview. [….] As a five-year employee she had to understand […] nobody would care. And she had to know […] she was putting her career at risk.”

    I also liked the names you chose for the dramatis personae, but for whatever reason, I was especially taken with “Sam Sansvertebrae”. The others were fun, but THAT one, for me at least, was truly inspired. I am lost in admiration!

  • Too bad David Guggenheim and Al Gore already used the term “An Inconvenient Truth.”

    If you really want to tell someone what it was like working there and why you are leaving, tell someone who cares.

  • Just read this article by James Detert in the Harvard Business Review, and since it’s pertinent to this discussion, I thought I’d pass it along: https://hbr.org/2018/11/cultivating-everyday-courage From the article: “My research shows that employees whose workplace courage produces good results have often spent months or years establishing that they excel at their jobs, that they are invested in the organization, and that they’re evenhanded.”

    It takes a hefty amount of social capital to make an organizational culture shift, and it seems likely that the majority of the people who have been sinned against (so to speak) don’t possess that necessary amount of capital.

    • Janet, it would be interesting to know if there was also a correlation between hierarchical power (usually a matter of rank) and those “good results.” The Karen Silkwoods of this world are rare (and have usually paid a high price for their integrity).

    • Janet – excellent point about social capital… it was quite easy to dismiss the departing comments made by folks who lacked it.

  • Being honest in the exit interview has no consequences for the departing employee in most cases, unless the person or persons happen to work for another company that you are seeking employment with in the future.

    I had a situation where there was so much nepotism at a company that was acquired by a large corporation. The problems were so extensive including one guy, friend of the director, who did no work the entire 3 years of my tenure. In my exit interview and in those of a couple other prior departures, this was mentioned along with other egregious systemic problems that were causing poor services and defective products. The parent corporation was conducting the interviews via a 3rd party service. They reported back what we all had said and not long after, the deadbeat friend of the boss was let go. Other problems still exist but are being dealt with little by little. So, the remaining employees are now getting some relief from the toxic culture that exists.

  • kg, I can see why in that specific case being honest held little risk for the departing employee. This is hardly “most cases,” however, as the circumstances were both specific and somewhat uncommon (in the larger population of exit interviews):

    * The employing company had been acquired by a “large corporation,” so presumably no officer of the acquired company had a C-level role post-acquisition in the acquiring company. Even if there had been, it’s unlikely that he or she would have made any kind of fuss over the friend’s dismissal, lest it be taken as an admission of responsibility (that could well end in a second dismissal).

    * The exit interview was conducted by a 3rd-party service, not a manager, officer, or HR employee of the acquired company, as is most often the case.

    * The results of the exit interview were communicated to the leadership of the acquiring corporation, not to the former boss of the acquired company. Oh, the boss knows that some person or persons let the cat out of the bag because of the remedial actions taken (unless his departure was part of the acquisition), but there is little chance of that boss’ finding out who the sources were.

    As the leadership of the acquiring corporation had no long-term involvement in the “egregious system problems” of the acquired company (and in fact had very good reasons to want those problems to be resolved), I wouldn’t have expected there to be any blowback against the departed employee. This is a very different circumstance from what we’ve been discussing, in which the departed employee’s manager (and other executives of the company) either know outright or can draw a reasonable conclusion about the source of the negative report.

    Such situations as you’ve proposed, while possibly not rare, are hardly the majority case. I would expect that they are, in fact, a very small minority of cases involving exit interviews.

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