Should you promise confidentiality? Although experts offer differing opinions, the argument is strongest against offering it. Why? Issues may arise that demand further investigation. If, for instance, the employee alleges sexual or racial harassment during the exit interview, it's a substantial risk to simply shrug off these charges. Looking into them, however, could compromise any confidentiality promises that were made. And if such a promise is broken, it will get back to your remaining workers--and that will greatly reduce their trust in your company's exit-interview process.
When it's time to do the interview, keep your ears open and stay flexible. "Listen," advises St. John. "Don't confront and don't debate."
Giving the employee a chance to talk may open a door you didn't know existed. For instance, "if it's a good employee and he or she is leaving for more money at another company, you have the opportunity to meet the increase and possibly keep the employee," says Steven Adler, a labor attorney with Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman & Leonard in Hackensack, New Jersey. "An exit interview always gives you a last chance at retaining good workers."
What if the employee says he's leaving because of his manager? Listen up. "Exit interviews can be a good tool for finding out about problems with a particular supervisor," says John Challenger, CEO of Chicago-based international outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
Understand, however, that a worker with a grudge may be using the interview as a way to get back at his or her boss. "You've got to skeptically view the information you gather in an exit interview," says Sharon McFarland, a professor at the Carl H. Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati. But if six resigning employees all point a finger at the same supervisor, you should take a hard look at how this supervisor manages.
Other complaints that may come up: Deadlines are impossible to meet; productivity demands are too stressful; there's a lack of respect for individual workers; rewards are inadequate. Employees rarely leave a job simply for more money; usually there's some overall dissatisfaction with the workplace. And if employees do open up, these are the complaints that you're likely to hear.
"[A problem with] many organizations is they don't want to hear the truth, so they don't do thorough exit interviews," says Challenger. But a small business doesn't have the luxury of hemorrhaging talent--you've got to hear the truth so you can take steps to make your business a better place to work for in the future.
What if the interview turns highly unpleasant and an employee threatens to sue? If an exit interview is likely to be stressful--and especially if an employee has been terminated--"involve two people from your side," says Adler, who cautions that you need to be very careful about what you say in the interview. If an employee says "My boss is a lecherous bum," don't say you've long suspected it, but don't say he's not either. Just listen to the employee.
Then, too, you may even find a way out of a lawsuit. "You can use this meeting as a chance to defuse a potentially explosive situation. See if there's a way to work out the problem without litigation," says Weitzman. "We tell clients to solve problems before they become problems. Once that employee goes to an attorney, it could open a very expensive can of worms."
Most times, however, matters won't go in such a perilous direction. It's more likely the employee will vent a bit about a job gone sour--and that's fine because the harder you listen to these rants, the more apt you are to have to hold fewer exit interviews in the coming months. "Everybody knows if you want to find out how the work is really done in a business, you talk to the workers," says St. John. "If you want to find out why people leave your business, talk to the ones who are leaving. That's the way to find out what you need to do to keep more good people on board."
Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.,http://www.outplacement-chalenger.com
Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman & Leonard, (201) 525-6273, email@example.com
FSJ Services Inc., (770) 392-1771, firstname.lastname@example.org
Proskauer Rose LLP, (561) 241-7400, http://www.proskauer.com
Robert Half International Inc., (800) 474-4253, http://www.rhii.com
Sack & Sack, 135 E. 57th St., 12th Floor, New York, NY 10022, (212) 702-9000, ext. 34