How not to devolve into a "whine" and cheese session
We in HR fall into two camps on this question. One, that exit interviews are nothing more than b*tch sessions for the departing employee and won’t yield any useful data. The other camp firmly believes that exit interviews are essential tools that all companies should employ.
I think I’m somewhere in the middle. Certainly, there are those who will only use the opportunity to trash your organization and management and it’s sometimes difficult to glean any reliable information about areas of improvement. But when trying to get actually useful information, I think we fall short. Maybe we’re focusing on the wrong things, and asking the wrong questions. Sometimes, we’re asking the wrong people.
We should be focusing on those we feel are high performing, valued employees. After all, aren’t those the people we most want to stay? If we can determine what’s missing for these folks, we may be able to reboot and prevent others from following suit.
Usually, we start with something along the lines of "tell me why you’re leaving". At this point in the conversation, I think the better question is "What prompted you to start looking for a new job?" It may be a subtle difference, but one that elicits more useful information. Of course, the occasional conversation before the employee resigns to find out why he/she stays can help your organization focus on your strengths, and by contrast, work on your weaknesses.
Another area of exploration should include asking how the day-to-day realities of the job compared with their expectations – how we presented the job in initial interviews, etc. This can help us to better "sell" the job and result in better matches in the future.
A close companion is asking if the employee felt he/she had the necessary tools/resources/support to do the job well. A good follow-up would be to ask what tools and resources they feel are important to success in the position they’re leaving. Information gained in this line of questioning can be applied to your search to fill the vacant spot.
Finally, it may be useful to ask two additional questions:
- Would you recommend this organization to your family and friends? Why or why not?
- What does your new company/job offer you that encouraged you to accept the offer?
Most employees don’t really like exit interviews. They’re uncomfortable, they sometimes fear what they say will result in a bad reference. Assure them that the information is used only in the aggregate, is not individually identified (unless of course, issues of illegal behavior come up!) and is used to help the company be better. Making this more like a conversation than an "interview" is going to help the employee to feel more comfortable and has a better chance of making this process worth your time.