Although I agree with Nick on most things, I'm not ready to give up on this one just yet. Sure, there are things we need to do to improve the process, but there's also some real potential here.
What if we used the exit interview opportunity to collect not only the basic HR stuff, but also knowledge about what it takes to do the job? Information that could be used to staff the job, improve the organization, and help incumbents and candidates.
And what if we used exit interviews as one of a series of "cradle-to-grave" interviews done to collect knowledge? Like the UK Post Office, for example, who developed--and use frequently --a method called 3E. (TM)
The three E's are Entry, Expert and Exit. Highly skilled (and well-trained) interviewers focus on capturing key knowledge from people in the organization. Exit interviews are important, but they're not the only time employees are asked for input.
How it Differs
How does a knowledge-focused exit interview differ from a traditional exit interview?
In a knowledge-focused interview, you may collect the typical HR information, but your primary focus is on knowledge -- knowledge that would be helpful to the next person in the job or to others in the organization with similar roles and responsibilities. The kinds of questions you'd ask might include: "What did you do? How did you do it? Why did you do it? What skills and competencies are most critical?"
Done correctly, these types of exit interviews are a win-win for both the organization and the exiting employee. The questions enable the employee to articulate their unique contributions to the organization, and in doing so, feel better about leaving, and better about the organization.
Look Under the Hood
If you do only one thing to change the way you do exit interviews, ask the kinds of questions that will get to the heart of what the job is all about and what it takes to do the work.
In doing exit interviews with Help Desk staff, we found that two of the most important competencies for the job were: 1) the ability to calm an angry customer, satisfy their needs quickly and have them leave happy; and 2) the ability to deal with the high noise and activity level in the work setting -- to be able to think and deal with customers on the phone amidst all the ruckus.
We also learned the tricks people used to deal with the noise and calm angry people. We learned this information by asking employees what frustrated them most.
This is the kind of stuff you'll want to learn about your employees' (former employees) jobs.