Exit interviews can provide valuable feedback that HR departments can use to address issues in the company or simply improve.

But it’s not always possible to do an exit interview, or even appropriate. And you may not always get honest answers from former employees. However, it’s still a worthwhile endeavor whenever possible.

If Possible

Employees leaving voluntarily don’t have much of a reason to refuse an exit interview. The question is how much honesty you’ll get from them.

Employees with a beef might be itching to provide feedback on the people they work with or for, or on the company as a whole. With another job lined up already, they may be willing to spill the beans. In that case, they can be a wealth of information that you’d never hear from them while they were still an employee.

However, many people adopt a “don’t-burn-the-bridge” approach to their careers, in general. For those people, it’s never worth telling the truth, in case it somehow comes back to haunt them.

Some employees leaving involuntarily may be willing to sit down with you, but not right after they get the bad news.

Clarify the Situation

With employees leaving voluntarily, exit interviews are a good time to gain an understanding of their time at the company and why they’re leaving. If they’re willing to be honest about it.

With employees leaving involuntarily, exit interviews are a good time to clarify why the company had to let them go.

Again, the interview shouldn’t occur immediately following the trauma of being let go, when emotions will likely cloud any message. But it could occur a few days or a week or two later, if the person is willing to come back to the office or meet somewhere.

At that time, you should reiterate the business (i.e., not personal) reasons you let the employee go. This should be the first thing you talk about.

The second thing you talk about should be what the company is willing to do for them moving forward. Reiterate clearly what you’re willing to offer to help, such as severance, insurance, pension, references and possible reemployment down the road.

Let Them Talk

Regardless of whether employees leave voluntarily or involuntarily, give them an opportunity to speak their minds. Open-ended questions can help get them to open up, while close-ended questions can help nail down specifics.

In the case of layoffs or firings, this is the time for former employees to get things off their chests, which is helpful in moving forward. Let them do it.

Use their feedback to establish clearly whether they fully understand the reason for their termination. If they feel discriminated against, try very hard to make them understand the business reasons for their layoff or firing. But do it without getting confrontational.

Take Notes

Documenting the interview does a few different things. One, it shows that you’re taking what the person says seriously. Two, it provides a record of the conversation. Three, it gives the employee a reference they can use in their job hunt.

Make sure the person understands why you’re taking notes, and offer them a copy. Ask them if they’re willing to read the notes to make sure they agree with them. Make the appropriate corrections based on their feedback.

Sign the notes and ask if they’d be willing to do the same, to show that both sides are clear on what transpired during the interview.

Format the notes in a way that the person can use them in their job search, as a form of reference. You should include the employee’s accomplishments during their tenure at your company and also the reason(s) you terminated their employment.

Gain Clarity

Exit interviews can be beneficial to both sides. Conduct them whenever possible to gain clarity, communicate and create a (hopefully) usable record.

Any time an employee leaves, it creates ripples in the water. If it’s a layoff or firing, it can be traumatic, not only for the former employee but for the managers and HR personnel handling the termination and the coworkers remaining at the company.

Exit interviews can help – as a time to talk about what happened, gain understanding and begin the process of moving on.