Monday, August 1, 2016

A Quick Word on Confidentiality and Exit Interviews

I have had two friends in recent weeks who left their jobs and were required to complete exit interviews prior to leaving.  Both were extremely uncomfortable and felt coerced into provided information about their boss, immediate managers and co-workers.  In one case, it was strongly implied that if the person was not willing to help them with meet the requirements of their exit interview, the company would not be willing to help them with good references in the future.  Both stated they did not give honest answers, gave only positive answers despite both stating there were numerous management problems that had caused each to leave and on open ended questions asking for any additional information they though could be relevant gave no reply.
Exit interviews are intended to be useful for the company.  They are designed to provide feedback about what aspect of the job and the organization may need to be altered, fixed or improved.  Unfortunately, many companies fail to exercise the proper discipline when dealing with exit interviews leaving employees with the impression that stating anything that might be viewed as criticism will result in negative consequences. In order for the answers provided during exit interviews to be useful to the company and provide the information that they are intended to elicit, employees must feel certain their answers will remain confidential and that none of their answers can be associated with them.  This may mean a simple adjustment that can be accomplished through educating all employees or it may mean a change in company culture.  Whatever the degree of change required, the only way to make exit interviews worth the time and effort needed to conduct them is to make them useful.  This means making the answers given reliable and accurate.
The treatment of confidential information is one of the most important ethical issue for staffing specialists, and specifically for human resources employees. When an employer promises employees that information will be remain confidential, they are obligated to keep this promise. However, it could be argued that it is obvious that the results of exit interviews will be shared with supervisors and higher ups in the organization as this is the only way such information will have a positive impact in terms of organizational change.  It could also be argued that since HR works for the organization and not the employee, they have a duty to disclose any information that could impact the business.
However, given the negative repercussions in which negative feedback provided by the employee during an exit interview could result, it is imperative that this information be disclosed in an anonymous manner.  If Supervisors are aware that certain former employees were critical of them, the supervisor may give negative references.  There may also be negative repercussions for the employee’s former co-workers if certain information involves others.  Failure to adhere to confidentiality related to exit interviews is also likely to become common knowledge at the organization.  When this occurs, other employees who leave in the future will likely fail to provide accurate feedback if the information is negative to avoid potential consequences.  Thus, an important source of information that provides the organization with the capacity for quality improvement will be lost.  In such a scenario only positive feedback which may or may not be accurate, is likely to be shared which does not help an organization learn about weaknesses or problems that need correcting. 
It is also possible that when employees learn that exit interview responses are not kept confidential they will become generally distrustful of the organization.  This could result in their failure to provide useful feedback to address problem situations while they are still employed with the company.  In the situation presented the best option is for HR find a way to aggregate the information from all the interviews conducted.  This would allow a single report to be created summarizing the feedback of all interviews together without identifying any individual employee.  However, it is the responsibility of businesses to find a way to ensure that all data and information from exit interviews remains confidential and when presented it is in a way that prevents any individual’s data from being identified.   All known and potential uses of the data must be disclosed to the employee prior to having them complete the interview and should they decide not to complete the interview, no negative consequences should be imposed.