Exit interviews - a narrative approach

September 28, 2007

Hands up those who have gone through a really solid exit interview process when leaving a company. Just what I thought … very few of us have experienced a thorough, meaningful exit interview. Instead, many exit interviews are a mere “tick the box in the personnel file” formality rather than an opportunity to gain a rich perspective based on the anecdotes employees have to tell about the organisation.

I need to be careful not to alienate the HR practitioners reading this post – many of them will pride themselves in completing good exit interviews. Sonja and I (Aiden) have seen an opportunity, based on an oft-found lackluster approach, to use narrative in the context of exit interviews.

By incorporating the narrative elements of displacement and resonance, narrative-based exit interviews would allow an opportunity for employees to share experiences that have resulted in their departure without necessarily implicating the parties concerned and for employees to highlight patterns within the organisation’s culture by telling stories of experiences that date back prior to their departure.

Gathering anecdotes about the organisation in this way will also elicit information that is pervasive and characteristic of broader patterns within the organisation. This cultural information would then be of great value to leaders, so much more than the information coming out of traditional approaches that typically report on reasons for a departure.

To respond to the implicit political dynamics of having an HR representative doing the interview, one might outsource the process to narrative facilitators. In this way, employees may feel more secure and the process becomes less draining on HR departments that are often stretched in terms of people capacity. There are a others opportunities associated with a narrative-based approach:

– to construct a narrative database where anecdotes from interviews conducted organisation-wide can be stored and utilised by software such as Sensemaker for serendipitous search, horizon scanning within the culture, attractors and barriers.
– to move away from the “script” that employees often give in response to the interrogation style questions usually posed in the process.

In general though, the opportunity is to shift the mindset around exit interviews from being reporting on reasons for exits towards a strategic source of information for leaders that communicates the pulse of the organisational culture in a relatively low-cost, efficient manner.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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