There is a popular belief that runs something like this: “Employees leave bad bosses not jobs.”

Firms in the game of providing leadership training have the stats to back it up. The bad boss may be a contributing factor to an employees decision to move on, however, a systems way of thinking would see the boss within the context of the greater organization.

When an employee leaves an organization there is often a knee-jerk reaction by HR departments to complete an exit interview. HR practitioner’s that have read the latest Gallup poll on bad managers may go into such an interview with an unconscious bias.  Leading questions that seek to confirm the boss as the problem miss out on an opportunity for a broader understanding.

I have conducted several exit interviews. Over time my focus going into these interviews shifted from “trying to get the dirt” to “a coaching opportunity”. A leader with good radar will already know and understand the leadership deficiencies of “The Bad Boss” in question. Rather than placing focus on the bad boss, I viewed the exit interview as an opportunity to promote growth for the employee leaving the organization. When the employee would tell me about all the bad things about their boss I would ask questions like: “How much of what you’re telling me have you told him?” In most cases the response was: “Not much.” I would follow this up by asking a question like: “What would it take for you to provide constructive feedback to your leader?” I recall one example where I challenged the exiting employee to communicate what she was telling me to her former boss. She rose to the challenge. It was one of the hardest things she had ever done but she was glad she did it.

If the things that you hear in an exit interview come as a shock, I believe this says more about the culture of the organization and your own leadership than it says about the bad boss. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that the bad boss doesn’t need to be dealt with, what I am saying is that organizations that rush to remove the bad boss and neglect to address the systemic issues are doomed for a repeat of history.

Get Proactive – Do an “Entry Interview”

It finally dawned on me after having completed many “exit interviews” that the process was reactionary. By the time an employee leaves an organization the damage is already done. I shifted into a practise of completing “entry interviews”.

I made it a point to interview each and every new employee starting within my department within the first week. There were three levels of management reporting through to me in the chain of command. This level of management structure created a disconnect between myself and front-line employees. The entry interview provided an opportunity to learn about the employee’s family, hobbies, interests and employment history. The process provided an opportunity to communicate corporate values. It is one thing to hear about “Safety” from the HR department, it is another thing to hear it directly from the Leader along with the stories of past incidents and reassurance that going home safe takes priority over everything we do.

It also gave a chance to communicate organizational structure and how the new employee fits into the greater system. I very much enjoyed hearing reports from my executive assistant to the effect that the new employee really appreciated the interview and that it was the first time they had ever been greeted in such a way.

I abandoned the practice after my next promotion. Too busy, I told myself! Too many employees and after-all I am too busy with all this important big shot stuff. This was a mistake. I encourage leaders at all levels to invest time into “interviews” on entry vs. exit. The return is well worth the investment.