Kusserow on Compliance: Exit interviews, another important compliance communication channel

In the HHS Office of Inspector General’s (OIG’s) compliance guidance, the agency calls for the development of effective lines of communication with employees. The OIG notes that an open line of communication between the compliance officer and personnel is very important to the successful implementation of a compliance program and the reduction of any potential for fraud, abuse, and waste. High on the list of channels that organizations are encouraged to implement is the use of hotlines (including anonymous hotlines). However, the agency stresses the importance of other channels such as e-mails, written memoranda, newsletters, and other forms of information exchange to maintain these open lines of communication as well. The major purpose of these lines of communications is to learn about business practices and conditions in the workplace, particularly those that might result in wrongful acts. Yet, one very significant channel of communication not cited in any of the OIG’s compliance guidance documents is the use of exit interviews to debrief departing employees prior to their departure.

Many organizations conduct employee exit interviews (also called exit surveys) to gather data for improving working conditions and retaining employees. This has been common in human resource management for generations and this type of communication can be useful in taking actions to correct deficiencies, reduce turnover, identify potential compliance-related problems, and maintain a productive work environment.

Now, changes in the regulatory landscape have underscored other reasons for exit interview programs. Among the more significant factors bearing on this point have been the recent Supreme Court decisions regarding unlawful harassment that stated organizations will not be permitted to raise an affirmative defense unless they have taken certain affirmative steps to seek out potential development of a hostile work environment. Hotlines, as well as exit interviews, can be used to provide an employee with the means and opportunity to register a report on hostile work environment issues, such as sexual harassment, retaliation, abusive practices, discrimination, etc.

A second major factor influencing the advancement of exit interviews has been the rise in the number of whistleblowers. These individuals have been encouraged by a variety of means, not the least of which has been the qui tam provision of the False Claims Act (FCA). At this time an average of one allegation a day relating to health care providers is being registered with the Department of Justice (DOJ). Therefore, it is doubly important to debrief those leaving and include in that process questioning about any fraudulent or wrongful activity they observed or suspected so that early intervention can address that risk.

The objectives and processes of an exit interview program can be expanded to include assisting employers to avoid costly litigation down the road, caused by disgruntled employees. Optimally an exit interview process should be done in time to permit possible remedial actions before the employee ends their employment.

Potential compliance benefits

  • Providing early warnings to management that something might be wrong in some operational area;
  • Deterring departing employees from becoming “whistle-blowers” after they secure new employment and are free from the fear of retaliation;
  • Providing useful operational information for management to take quick corrective actions;
  • Permitting the individual a legitimate path for redress of grievance; and
  • In many cases, assisting an organization in using their departing employee interview program as an affirmative defense to litigation.

Although this can be a very important element of any compliance program, the fact remains that the primary force for such a program will likely remain with human resource management. Further, because these departments are normally overloaded with other requirements related to departing employees, this staff often is unable or unwilling to expand this program to encompass the compliance related concerns. Some organizations encourage departing employees to call the hotline to relate their experiences with the organization.

Richard P. Kusserow served as DHHS Inspector General for 11 years. He currently is CEO of Strategic Management Services, LLC (SM), a firm that has assisted more than 3,000 organizations and entities with compliance related matters. The SM sister company, CRC, provides a wide range of compliance tools including sanction-screening.

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Copyright © 2016 Strategic Management Services, LLC. Published with permission.