Don't burn your bridges at work

How it ends for employees and their bosses is just as important and the key is to maintain mutual respect - not parting shots

IT'S probably not a surprise that January tends to be the time when people hand in their resignation letters - after all, most have collected their bonuses and made plans for a fresh start in the new year. If you have done so, congratulations on taking the step to change your life. But whatever your reasons for quitting are, it is not rocket science that leaving on a good note is a must. After all, it's a small world and you never know what would happen. Even if you swear never to return, you might meet your ex-colleagues or bosses if they change jobs too.

That is why navigating the final hurdle - the exit interview - matters. Yet, it is a process that both departing staff and employers tend to dismiss.

If done right, it can help the company improve its retention rate and manage its reputation. A positive final discussion can also help departing employees learn more about themselves.

Exiting with grace

According to Dan Cullen, partner-in-charge of the Singapore office, Heidrick & Struggles, many companies here tend to approach the exit interview as an afterthought.

He explains: "Generally speaking, companies that pay more attention to the 'in-take', or the onboarding process, outnumber those who pay attention to that as well as the exit or the 'off-boarding' process."

There are a number of common reasons for this lack of concern for exit interviews. Firstly, management may not understand the future value that these insights could bring to the organisation in terms of talent management and leadership, he says.

"Often, there is a natural mindset of 'Let's not waste more time and resources on that person', which is often the derailer," he notes.

Another reason could be due to a lack of structured HR processes - often a result of a diminished role of HR as a key part of business in Asia, he notes. He lists the three main components of the exit interview as the interview itself, the collation and analysis of the data obtained, and then acting on it to make improvements.

Mr Cullen cautions that carrying out interviews but not analysing the data or acting on it would be a "complete waste of time".

"Importantly, the strategic value of exit interviews will only be realised if the information they yield is shared with senior decision-makers," he adds.

An exit interview also allows employees to vent any emotive or negative issues, and minimise potential reputation risks for the company, he says.

If these exit interviews are managed well and employees leave the discussion satisfied, it can also help build the brand's reputation as an employer as departing staff would still speak favourably of the company even after they have moved on.

Finally, in a tight talent market, companies need to bear in mind that departing employees could return. Instead of dismissing them, firms should continue to engage and interact with these alumni consistently.

"Top talent is in high demand in the new digital market and it is important that you understand this individual's drivers and future interests," he adds.

Honesty the best policy?

One issue that departing employees struggle with for exit interviews is the level of honesty that they should be displaying to HR and their bosses.

Often, they tend to paint a more rosy picture during the exit interview for several reasons. Firstly, they do not want to leave on a bad note. Secondly, the push factors are usually problems that either the bosses cannot do anything to change, or issues that have gone ignored for too long that staff have since given up.

How honest an employee is at an exit interview will be highly dependent on the company's culture and the interviewers' skills, says Mr Cullen.

Experienced management and HR managers nurture an open, safe and appreciative environment so that departing executives are comfortable with an open dialogue, he adds.

But staff should also do their part to prepare for it to ensure that they can learn from it as well. "Get prepared for questions about why they are leaving. Be candid yet not offensive, and provide constructive feedback and suggestions," he says.

All it takes is some time to sort through your thoughts and experiences so that you can plan what to say beforehand, instead of going in unprepared and saying things that you might regret.

As for employers, Mr Cullen advises them to remember that the feelings and emotions from employees are real, even if they disagree or take issue with the details.

"Listen, don't argue," he says. "Don't challenge the validity of what the departing employee is saying and undermine their credibility or confidence."

The timing also matters - leaving the interview to the last day may not be optimal as their minds will certainly be on other things or they could be in an unusually upbeat mood because of their impending departure. These usually turn out rushed as workers have a lot to do in terms of handover, packing and administration.

Finally, he notes that exit interviews should not be looked at in isolation. The data collected is just one avenue that the organisation can measure the effectiveness of its human capital strategy.

A "successful" exit interview is when both parties hear each other and get where each other is coming from.

Mr Cullen says: "A well-handled, positive interview can turn a departing employee into a long-term 'corporate ambassador' rather than a disgruntled ex-employee - not to mention a potential future customer or influencer."

With the importance of networks in today's world, it is crucial to ensure the employee's memory of the company is a positive one.

"The exit interview is an often difficult process to manage. But the more effective the organisation can become at this, the hope would be the less you need to do in the future," he adds.

It's not just the beginning that matters, but also how it ends.