THE ART OF THE EXIT INTERVIEW You can learn a lot from the soon-to-be-departed, but only if you question them adroitly. Interviewees, watch what you say.
By WALTER KIECHEL III REPORTER ASSOCIATE James Browning

(FORTUNE Magazine) – There goes Foonash, your valued subordinate, severing the ties that bind, stealing away to work for another company. You can get mad, deciding that if he's going to leave a wonderful shop like yours, he must not have, must never have had, that much on the proverbial ball. Or you can get sad -- the place is going to hell in a hack; the end of Western civilization is at hand. What you ought to do: Make sure somebody talks to the man, debriefing him before he lifts off. People who ply the human resources trade call the exercise an exit interview, a one-on-one session in which the soon-to-be-departed is asked his thoughts on the outfit he's leaving. Companies with a reputation for caring about their employees -- IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and the like -- routinely conduct such interviews. And not just from altruism: The experts say that in the process you can learn a great deal about the strengths and weaknesses of your organization. But it takes skillful interrogation. Otherwise the smart and appropriately wary interviewee -- one does not want to burn bridges here -- will too often serve up mere happy talk. DONE RIGHT, an exit interview benefits both employee and employer. The leave-taker, by discreetly and politicly giving vent to some of the things on his mind, can develop a better sense of closure, to use the jargon, a feeling that he has tied up loose ends, said an appropriate goodbye, and can now cleanly move on to the next adventure. The experience, the pros attest, almost always makes him feel more kindly disposed to his former company -- ''They care about my input'' -- and maybe even less inclined to bad-mouth it. You the employer can hope to learn more about what's causing turnover, an expensive phenomenon likely to grow more so as the baby boom gives way to the baby bust. Are the pay, benefits, and promotions you offer keeping up with the competition's? Are you hiring the right sort of people, or matching them with the right jobs? (MBAs in the dispatching department?) Could you be overselling the position, eventually leaving the person who takes it with a set of crushingly disappointed expectations? Or is the job just impossible? Or the boss a disaster? Don't expect to get all the answers from exit interviews alone. The experts point out that the departing usually aren't a representative sample of your work force. You have to consider what they say in the context of other information you gather about employee attitudes and morale -- for example, from regular surveys.

Leonard Greenhalgh, a professor at Dartmouth's Tuck school, distinguishes the psychic quit, the moment when the individual says to himself, ''Phooey to this job,'' from the physical quit, when he actually bids you adieu. ''An exit interview can give you a pretty good picture of his mind at the physical quit,'' notes Greenhalgh. ''He says, 'I'm leaving because I got this wonderful offer,' and he's sincere. But that doesn't tell you why he started looking somewhere else in the first place.'' A well-conducted interview can help you come up with a few hypotheses. Well conducted almost invariably means, first, conducted by somebody other < than you, the employee's boss. Your boss might do it, or a manager from elsewhere in the company, but the the ideal choice would be a pro from human resources or a consultant from outside. It isn't just that line managers typically aren't trained in interviewing. If you have a big problem, or worse yet, if you are the big problem, how likely is Foonash to tell you so? And face the truth, even if he musters up the courage, how likely are you to pass the news along to somebody -- your boss, human resources -- who could help you address the issue? Be clear on the purpose of the session. You are politely asking the interviewee -- and he should be able to decline the invitation -- to help you figure out how to improve the organization. This isn't the occasion to try to talk him out of leaving -- presumably you've done that -- explain any residual corporate benefits, collect his ID card, or warn him of the awful consequences of taking proprietary information with him. Nor is it a time to try to repair the bad feelings of someone being fired. That's another conversation, or series of conversations. While a company should attempt to interview every departing employee -- don't forget people who are retiring -- the experts confirm that, as you would expect, you learn the most usable stuff from folks departing of their own accord. To get the absolute best stuff, the interviewer must be able to assure the interviewee that what he says won't come back to haunt him. When he asks his boss for a reference, for instance. In practical terms, this means that you can't talk to just one departee; you have to put several through the drill so that when the interrogator reports back to management, the problems he cites can't be attributed to a particular person. Assurances of confidentiality will go down a lot easier if the employee knows that the company routinely interviews everyone pushing off, and he has heard no horror stories of confidences betrayed. AFTER PRELIMINARY niceties -- ''We really hate to lose good people like you'' -- an adroit interlocutor will start gently lobbing open-ended questions, ones not susceptible to a yes or no response. But beware the standard beginning: ''Can you tell me why you're going?'' Greenhalgh, citing a psychological principle by the name of cognitive consistency, observes that if someone has decided to move on, it will be hard for him to square this with a belief that the job he's leaving is the best in the world. So he may deprecate it, subtly or not so subtly. Asking him the reasons for his departure, especially at the outset, will only bring out this sense of defensiveness. What you want, says Greenhalgh, are questions that encourage him to inform you, not to justify his decision. Vicki LaFarge, a management professor at Bentley College in Massachusetts, recommends beginning with the least threatening queries, along the line of ''I see you've been here ten years; what kind of assignments have you had?'' Once some rapport develops, the interviewer can zero in a bit, tailoring the inquiries to the employee's job experience and position within the company. For someone departing a fairly nutsy-boltsy job, for example, the litany might run: ''What were you hired to do? What have you, in fact, been doing? What kind of training did you receive?'' Experts say that the higher the interviewee on the managerial ladder, the more likely you are to encounter cagey, relentlessly upbeat, not wonderfully helpful responses. These folks may have to be engaged with questions that bring out their ego, enticing them to show off their intelligence or masterful understanding of the business. Neil Yeager, a career and organizational development specialist at the University of Massachusetts, recommends: ''If you were a consultant to the organization, what would you tell me about it?'' Other points that should be touched on: ''What did you like most about working here? What did you like least? What can we do to make this a better place? What kind of job are you going to?'' (A loquacious answer to the last question can tell you plenty about a competitor's plans.) Once the conversation is really rolling, the interviewer can get to more sensitive questions: ''What was it like to work for so-and-so?'' -- the employee's boss. Confronted with responses such as ''He was terrific'' or ''Not good,'' the true pro will press for concrete examples of the behavior in question. He will not appear to pass judgment on anyone. Nor will he try to talk the interviewee out of his perceptions -- ''How can you say that? This is a great company.'' If you want to administer a written questionnaire, take a tip from LaFarge: Give it to the employee at the end of the interview, after the organization has demonstrated its interest in what he has to say by talking with him and listening carefully. As the session concludes, the interviewer should thank him for his comments, and for his past contributions to the war effort. You might also ask to leave the door open for further conversations. Ron DiBattista, a management professor at Bryant College who has conducted exit interviews for about 25 companies, finds that in follow-up sessions -- first six months, then a year later -- former employees become progressively more candid. ''The first time,'' he reports, ''they'll say, 'I'm leaving because my spouse got a new job.' After six months it will be 'There weren't enough opportunities' or 'The work was monotonous.' After a year, they'll really get into company policies or talk frankly about what their immediate supervisor was like.'' With a thoroughly coy executive departee, DiBattista says, it may pay to do a follow-up even 18 months after his farewell. IF YOU ARE the interviewee, just how coy should you be? You should try to be helpful. Also positive. Provide as much information as you can in a friendly but all the while professional manner. Don't whine, launch into ad hominem attacks, or take this as the opportunity to finally let out ten years of bottled-up rage or frustration. In too many cases, the more disturbed you seem, the more likely your comments are to be discounted as the ravings of a flake. If you truly are a volcano waiting to be invited to explode, decline to be interviewed. The best you can hope for from an exit interview goes beyond a sense of closure and an amicable goodbye. By being as forthcoming as you can, you may actually be able to strengthen ties that you might want to endure. Neil Yeager puts the matter well: ''It's not likely you'll build a bridge in an exit interview. But you can reinforce one you have already built, rather than burning it.'' There's no telling where you may want to look for a job someday.