“1998: Don’t get in a car with strangers.” 2008: Don’t meet people from the Internet alone.” 2018: Uber: Order yourself a stranger from the Internet to get into a car alone with.” — Source unknown

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 naivet√©.

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.