Sunday, August 22, 2010

Exit Interviews and Reference Checks

This post actually takes off from Rajan's comment on my last post, "When the good guys leave...".   I also use it as a segue to the related issue of Reference Checks.

First, to respond to Rajan: Your experience does (unfortunately) correspond with some of mine as well and it is definitely not too far off from what many have experienced.  But isn't that typical of any process that is done "half-heartedly" and without a clear understanding of it's value?  That's one reason, I believe it should be done by carefully identified interviewers.  These interviewers should not only be skilled in order to be able to flush out the facts but also have the courage to convey it to Management.
As for management using the new information; that's like any other input that Management receives.  It always has the prerogative to use the information it gets in any manner it thinks fit.  That is what, essentially, differentiates good management.

A Management that is serious about exit interviews will not only make sure it is conducted by skilled people, it will also ensure it tracks the feedback so received.  Of course, effective exit interviews cannot be termed ineffective just because no action was taken immediately.  Rather, good Management would not take action based on one interview.  I would say, just like customer feedback, information received from exit interviews too should be collated, verified and studied before taking action.

The "out of line" point is interesting too!  What does that mean?  If it is supposed to mean that what the exiting member has said is not in line with what Management has heard from others, that's one thing.  I'd say one needs to await a 'confirmation' of this new information.
But what if it is to mean that the exiting member is not in line with Management's thinking?  Irrespective of the specifics, I would argue it is better -- both for the organization and for the employee -- to leave if they are not in alignment.  For all you know, it could be the employee who is right.  But, as long as the Management is convinced otherwise,  it would be better for the 'un-aligned' employee to leave.  This alone will enable Management to pursue it's strategy or goal, full throttle.  Having said that, the exit interview would yet have fulfilled its purpose.  It gives an opportunity to the exiting member to vent his / her frustration and allows them to highlight their perspective to management and gives Management a data point to consider.  As these points accumulate, it could well lead them to change or modify their stance on the issue.  Provided of course, the entire process is managed with sincerity, i.e., with a conviction as to its usefulness and by capturing and tracking the information collected in the process.

A neat segue from this issue is the practice of doing Reference Checks.  I have seen so many companies that do this so perfunctorily that it could well qualify for axing the entire process.  Typically, this process involves an HR employee calling the candidate's referees and reading questions from a prepared questionnaire.   I have seen cases where this happens even after the candidate has joined, because the 'person concerned' was on leave or just too tied up with other duties.  In many cases, the interviewer receives no training -- or even a briefing -- on the impact of the process or how it is to be handled.  What is important is to file the neccessary forms in the HR file, to fulfill an "ISO certification requirement".

And yet, there are others who have gained meaningful insights into a candidate by asking pointed (and sometimes, even open) questions and pushing for a detailed response.  I recall at least two cases where imaginative ref-checks have resulted in clear benefits to the company.
In one situation I interviewed a 'grossly over-qualified' candidate.  He was certainly impressive and seemed to have all the right credentials for the vacancy we had.  The only loose piece was that he could well have gone for a higher-paying and bigger job.  I was quite desperate for a good candidate and decided to put aside my fears and short listed him anyway.  And then we did our usual reference check.  The referee was obviously a very busy person.  She pleaded she had no time for the interview.  She, however, quietly sent us an one line email referring us to a news report that went back a couple of years.  Following that link led us to the fact that the guy was practically a fraud.  His claims to 'ivy league' education being totally fabricated, as verified by the news paper with the concerned University.
The second case hardly qualifies as a ref-check in the conventional sense.  This is the practice apparently followed by Panasonic at some of is facilities... obviously Japanese inspired!

As the candidate comes in for the final interview, s/he is welcomed by a 'lower level' employee and ushered into the ante-room of the big boss.  As s/he waits to be called in, this employee strikes an innocuous conversation with the candidate.  How the candidate reacts to this 'intrusion' is actually carried verbatim to the Management and goes toward assessing their attitude toward lower level staff.  Very clever I thought!  Not very white or transparent, but I can see how it can be very effective.

The point is this: even a 'best practice' -- especially HR related -- is effective only if it is implemented with conviction and a due process is installed to make it happen consistently.  This includes developing and implementing a process as much as hiring and training the right people.  That -- like everything else ties back to Management.  It's style, it's convictions and it's willingness to learn.


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