So what exactly is the point of having a sit-down with an employee who's on their way out the door? What do you expect to learn? Or what can you hope to learn? Is it really going to do you any good anyway?
Let's start with the basics. An exit interview is a voluntary, verbal interview between an employee who's leaving your company and someone else (an HR person if you have one; you if you don't). For the purpose of simplification, let's assume it's you. The interview often takes place one to two days before the employee actually leaves, whether they're leaving voluntarily or not.
The goal of this interaction is two-fold: First, you want to give the employee a chance to vent their feelings about the work experience. This includes what worked right in the job as well as what didn't. Subjects covered may include their boss, their colleagues and their direct reports, as well as company processes, interaction between individuals and work units, productivity, morale, finances, equipment, worker satisfaction and so on. To get the most out of the interview, it's helpful, prior to the interview, if you share with the employee an overview of the type of questions you'll be asking. This way, the interview becomes more of a discussion--rather than an interrogation--where both parties are prepared to talk about the work situation.
Simply gathering the information is only part of the exit interview process. The second purpose is to analyze the information you gather, and then feed it back to the people with whom the departing employee worked. Since the goal here is to improve any aspect of the organization that was discussed, it's crucial for you to formulate comments, even negative ones, in an educational, positive framework. Although this may be difficult, especially if the information is truly negative, there's really no purpose in simply relating negative information without trying to put it into a context that serves to educate the people involved and bring about change in a troubled area.
Keep in mind that some of the information you share may come as a surprise to the people you're sharing them with. An employee who's about to leave the company is often more forthcoming that one who still has to come back to work the next day. Don't be surprised if the employee's supervisor is taken aback by some of the feedback the employee shared with you. They may even get defensive and try to blame the employee or deny that the action(s) or issue(s) in question ever took place. As a skilled communicator, you must phrase the information in a manner that clearly states the problem, yet frames it in such a way that it also states and demonstrates the possibility of turning around a negative situation.
Fortunately, the information you'll get won't always be negative, and you should be sure to share the employee's positive comments with their supervisor and others involved. Often, people hesitate to pass on good news, falsely believing that people don't need to be told when they're doing a good job. On the contrary! In a world where people too often share only negative information, it's my belief that every business would be far more productive if more positive feedback were provided.
What's the Point?
Are exit interviews always helpful? Absolutely not. First of all, some employees are reluctant to "burn their bridges" and are therefore not completely honest. Fearful of receiving a negative reference for a future employer, many employees are reluctant to be totally truthful and informative with you. Instead, they either paint a rosy picture or simply withhold negative information. This creates a system in which change is critically needed, but no one knows it because everyone's afraid to point out the obvious: that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes.
So what can you do to encourage more effective exit interviews? First, you need to demonstrate to your employees that the information you gather in an exit interview is being shared appropriately. This means that the exit interview process has had a positive impact on an existing situation, that something the departing employee complained about was actually addressed by you. For example, let's say a departing employee complained that the boss never gave superior ratings on the performance appraisal instrument, despite the impression that productivity was well above average. The next time an evaluation was given, if some high achievers received appropriately superior ratings, this would signal to your employees that you were willing to correct a negative situation.
A second instance where exit interviews may not be effective is where the departing employee simply isn't interested in sharing information. They're not invested and simply give brief yes or no answers. There are any number of reasons for this. Maybe the employee didn't like their job, wasn't challenged by it, or simply didn't care about the job or the company or the exit interview process. Or maybe they're afraid the offending supervisor may retaliate toward the remaining employees. Additionally, if other employees have complained about issues during their exit interviews and nothing appears to have happened as a result, employees can simply lose faith in the process and won't be invested or forthright when they have their own exit interviews.
The final instance where the process doesn't work is one in which it's apparent that the departing employee simply isn't telling the truth. Signs of this situation include information that is overly negative or overly positive, information that is extreme in nature, such as stories that show that nothing or little the supervisor ever did was positive--or, on the contrary, everything the supervisor did was extremely positive. If you keep an eye out for these instances, you can modify the tone of the interview--and therefore the quality of the information being shared--so that the process can be both effective and productive.