At Patagonia, exit interviews are rare—but they go deep

Hats off.
Hats off.
Image: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In a perfect world, the exit interview is an opportunity for employees to be brutally honest about why they’re leaving a company, whether the motivation is connected to the employer’s shortcomings, and if the departure could have been prevented.

Like any other corporate ritual, it can easily turn into a performance, where both actors have reasons to play by unwritten rules about keeping the exchange superficial. The outgoing employee, for one, may not want to leave a final impression that’s negative, and may not trust that any feedback they give will not be linked to their name. The HR staffer conducting the interview might be reluctant to dig deep.

But exit interviews seem to come in a completely different flavor at Patagonia, a company that boasts of an extremely low turnover rate among its corporate staff, about 4% annually, according to chief human resources officer Dean Carter. “So few people leave that I can look them in the eye and say, ‘Let’s talk,’” Carter said earlier this month in a presentation at the Qualtrics X4 Experience Management Summit in Salt Lake City, adding, “so they all know if they’re going to leave, they have to talk to me.”

As is the norm at other companies, Patagonia collects data about staff exits, he said, but he uses the conversation to find richer information. “I want to hear their story,” Carter said, so he goes back to the beginning. “My first question is not ‘Why did you leave?’ I ask ‘Why did you join? What compelled you to come to Patagonia, to leave your other job, or your family, or whatever it was?” he explained to the audience. “After that it’s, ‘Did we do that?’ ‘What was the experience we delivered for you?’ ‘Where was the difference in that?’”

The interview sounds like a corporate form of conscious uncoupling, where no one takes all the blame. “Sometimes,” Carter said, “we’ll both be crying over where we both missed the experience [for] Patagonia.”

That experience is, famously, unlike that of most other companies. At the Ventura, California-based outdoor-clothing label, employees are encouraged to go surfing when the surf is up, or to ski when there’s powder.

The company is often applauded for promoting women into leadership positions and supporting mothers with unheard-of policies, like paying to send a nanny on a business trip, so that an executive can travel with her child but also be fully productive. Patagonia has onsite childcare, a perk that has existed at the company long enough (more than 30 years) that some employees once attended daycare on the premises, and it has claimed a 100% retention rate for its working mothers for several years.

It’s not only mothers whose lifestyle is protected by the firm. Patagonia hires activists, Carter said, knowing they’ll continue to be crusaders after they’ve joined. While it trains employees to protest peacefully, he explained, Patagonia will pay their bail if they’re arrested. “And we’ll pay your spouse’s bail, and we’ll pay for your court time, and all your time off,” he told the crowd, “because we want them to be who they are.” It’s also, arguably, who Patagonia is.

The company’s line is that it is in the business of protecting the planet. “All of this would be jet fuel for the engines of modern cynicism, if not for the fact that Patagonia, a privately owned corporation now in its fifth decade, has a distinguished record of environmental philanthropy and investment,” the New Yorker (paywall) noted in 2015. Three years later, Patagonia would sue US president Donald Trump to preserve public lands in Utah at risk of being opened up to potential drilling and mining.

On Glassdoor, Patagonia is mostly rated as an excellent employer, even by retail sales associates who bemoan the low pay. A few negative reviews do hint at an atmosphere that’s not as open and community-focused as Carter and many media portrayals imply. The word “cult” comes up a couple of times. Yet the majority of reviewers have few, if any, complaints.

Carter boasts that the company doesn’t continually poll employees about their engagement with their job, because he doesn’t need to know whether people are “97% engaged or 98% engaged.” Outside of those uncommon exit interviews, when he asks employees if they’re having the experience they expected, he said, “for the most part, it’s like 10 times better than what they thought.”