No Exit

Preparing for the new world of the online exit interview.

You're giving notice and moving on. Inevitably, your employer wants to know why. Companies have never quite been sure how best to send off departing employees and get a straight answer. Who doesn't love those 15 uncomfortable minutes with an HR rep on his last day? Or scribbling out a paper questionnaire before the door hits you?

So it's no surprise that the unloved exit interview has gone online.

At companies such as T-Mobile, Campbell Soup, and Conair, employees complete an online questionnaire in the days before — or even after — leaving the company. Once an employee decides to quit (or is fired), corporate HR alerts Nobscot Corp., which sends the employee an email link to its 45-question online survey, known as WebExit. Nobscot aggregates the results to show companies trends in why people are leaving.

You're More Likely to Spill Your Guts

The Web-based exit interview ably serves the corporate goals of encouraging greater participation and loosening opinions that might get stifled when talking to someone you haven't seen since you got hired. "CEOs in particular love it because they can see from the data what's actually going on, straight from the horse's mouth," says Nobscot CEO Beth Carvin. Because of the soothing familiarity — and seeming anonymity — of cyberspace, the Web exit interview feels like your chance to be heard without torching yourself on the way out. Uncomfortable complaints and suggestions — "My manager was never available to answer questions or give feedback because he would take two-hour lunches to work out at the gym. . . . Maybe some sort of team incentive would counteract the overwhelming apathy" — are aired when they otherwise wouldn't be, perhaps because of the survey's format.

Departing employees are voting with their laptops. Ric Heimke, national director of staffing at Sedgwick Claims Management Services, an insurance-claims company, started using WebExit in 2002 and reports that three out of four departing Sedgwick employees choose to answer the WebExit survey. That's a much higher proportion than most companies could ever manage to interview face-to-face and almost double the number that typically respond to pencil-and-paper surveys.

Dangerously Seductive

But caution should still be the watchword when you get one of these seemingly innocuous survey links in your inbox. Paul Bernard, an executive coach in New York, thinks online exit interviews can be dangerously seductive, particularly because even in anonymous situations companies can match employees with their responses if they follow the electronic trail back far enough. "When someone discloses something in an exit interview, it's then part of the written record," Bernard says. "I advise my clients not to do online exit interviews, unless their company says it's going to withhold the last paycheck."

That's a strong incentive, but it rarely comes to that. Response rates are high enough that threats are unnecessary, says Carvin. A Web exit interview may be better than that face-to-face HR sit-down, but the old "It's not you, it's me" routine may still be in order.

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