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Obits, tombstones and exit interviews

The week of Independence Day is a time for parades and celebrations and picnics and it’s a time to remember the past and how much we owe those who have gone before us.

The week of Independence Day is a time for parades and celebrations and picnics and it’s a time to remember the past and how much we owe those who have gone before us.

Regretfully, most students today barely get to this in history classes and many do not have an appreciation for our past. It is no surprise that an alarming number of high school and college students seem attracted to the propaganda coming from ISIS. They may hear a lot of negativity at home, at school and in the media.

Have you ever walked through a cemetery and looked at the tombstones and their messages? Many include a brief statement about the qualities of the person who died. At the end of life, the good qualities are remembered above all potential negatives. Similarly, obituaries, though written in times of stress and typically by family members who feel a loss, naturally include good memories they may previously have forgotten.

Memorial services reflect fond memories and rarely contain negative references, except in humorous situations. The person being described might well be surprised to hear such warm and touching statements, compared with what they likely heard in life. Over time, neurosurgeons say, we recall more about the good things that happen to us than we do about the bad things.

Workplace performance reviews so often dwell on negatives and how to improve to meet the expectations of a higher authority. The person of interest in the review is uncomfortable anticipating the negatives and reacting to them. The authority figure is uncomfortable preparing for the review and often equally anxious about sharing the information. What will the reaction be? There is always potential for conflict. Today there are calls for a different approach to performance reviews in which the emphasis is less on negatives.

One moment in which an unusual performance review can be sought is when the giver is leaving the organization and is providing an exit interview. A human resources staff member may ask why the employee is leaving or there may be a written document for the departing worker to complete. Regretfully, many organizations do not collect any form of exit information; those that do often do not utilize the data they obtain.

A few years ago, access was obtained to five years of untouched exit-interview written instruments that were completed as employees left a large organization. Of special interest are remarks from departing managers about their bosses. Readers would be surprised at the nature of the remarks and the frequency with which the same general ideas were expressed. Naturally, some remarks were negative, but those will be saved for another day.

What about the positive things that were self-reported, even from those who were leaving involuntarily? Managers would appreciate knowing what the exiting employees said. So what was said?

One question elicited an abundance of positive comments: “What rating would you give your manager/supervisor as you leave your working with her/him? Offer an example of behaviors that warrant this rating:”

The examples proved remarkable, and all of them seem to have a work element and a personal one. Consider these.

  • She genuinely cares about her staff and shows it every day in little ways. It would be helpful if we knew some of the “little ways.” However, the fact that this manager could see that the senior manager cared about each person speaks to a basic need of most workers — high- and low-level. How do you show your staff that you care about their situations?
  • He is well organized, and we each know where we stand and what is expected of us and why! To see that you are well organized speaks for itself — a real plus. It seems everyone has continual feedback and they know what is expected. A successful manager, you think? What about you? Would your staff say this about you?
  • He always is stressing the mission — the company’s goals — and why they are important to each department and each staff member. If all members of the department understand the mission and how they fit, is that is a textbook example of a successful leader? Does this fit you?
  • She knows everyone’s name and background and family situation. She is always talking to you about your ability to do more and what it might take to be qualified. This seems to be stressing the mentor role that this manager saw as so important. Workers want to be able to do more and to move up, and this need is not reduced in older workers or managers. How do you mentor your staff?
  • He makes sure we know what is happening companywide, and especially how our work group as a whole is performing. How am I doing, boss? That is a long-standing need that the manager should be meeting. Do members of your department understand the condition of the company and how it is improving its position? How does your work group create value for the company?
  • She seemed to know when there is conflict or extra stress at work and finds ways of offering assistance over coffee or with an email note offering assistance. She cares. The manner in which this manager was able to show that she cared is the key. The manager must be aware of the conditions in the department and be ready to react on an individual basis, where appropriate. Have you been successful in one-on-one counseling?
  • He seems never to be in his office; he is always in the shop checking to be sure scheduled work is on time and offering assistance when problems arose. He never pushes; he helps. This plus can easily be a minus. Some people behaving in this manner could be seen as micromanaging. In this case, the subordinate manager saw it as a plus.
  • My boss is the CEO, but you would never know it! He is on the floor and in the offices every day, talking with everyone and mostly about the work and what help might be needed. He knows every detail of what is going on and anticipates when we may have any trouble getting our department work done. This CEO probably grew up with the company. This behavior is more typical in a smaller company than in a larger one. It can easily be seen as micromanaging, but it seems to be seen positively here also.
  • Although I head a department of vocational-type workers, my boss is able to talk to them in their language and they respect him and together we make sure what he wants done is done properly and on target. A new element is introduced here. Many managers cannot reach down to the vocational level and relate to them as individuals and talk their language. In this case, the department head is fortunate his boss speaks the language of his workers. Problems and conflicts are better understood and challenges are met more effectively.
  • The only reason I hate to leave is my manager. He is a real pro, and yet one of the gang also. We know he has our back. A great legacy for any manager: Would your subordinate managers say this about you?

These exit interview statements seem to contradict some books. The title of one is “Workers Leave Managers … Not Organizations.” Perhaps they will provide fodder for further research. But the big question is, how many of these statements would be made about you? You can work to be sure they apply.

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail:

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue.



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