One of the great challenges that cities, counties and states face is hiring and retaining competent, reliable employees. Things were a little easier during the Great Recession, when public service was the proverbial port in a storm for many job applicants. But private entities are hiring again. At the same time, governments are facing a growing wave of retirees, making it a greater challenge to maintain an adequately trained workforce.

There are some obvious -- but largely impractical -- approaches to this issue. Cities and states could, for example, raise pay levels. For most, that’s unaffordable. Or they could provide heftier benefits. But given the killer costs of pensions and postretirement health care right now, boosting benefits is fiscally and politically unsupportable almost everywhere.

As a result, it’s becoming ever more vital for governments to hang on to the employees they already have. Not only does this help keep the entity sufficiently well-staffed, it also helps reap the benefits of the training that new employees typically get, instead of, in effect, spending those training dollars to the advantage of the employee’s next boss.

When it comes to gaining information that can shape employee retention and recruitment policies, exit interviews or surveys are one of the most powerful tools available. What kind of information usually surfaces? Pay issues, unsurprisingly, lead the list of reasons why employees leave, but there are more. Sometimes people need more recognition. People also quit because a manager makes life intolerable or unpleasant.

In one large Southern city, exit interviews led to the discovery of a particularly troublesome cause for departures: A supervisor in a division with approximately 400 employees was acting inappropriately in the way he responded to employees. The negative tone of his voice and the irrationality of his responses were an issue the soon-to-be-former employees mentioned. The city conducted further interviews to confirm whether this behavior was an ongoing issue. When it was proven so, a performance plan was put in place that helped the supervisor make his communications with subordinates more constructive.

Like all other solutions to difficult problems, exit interviews are not without their flaws. For one thing, some employees may hesitate to be entirely candid out of concern that their words will be used against them sometime in the future. But although they are “not a perfect tool,” says Sam Wilkins, director of human resources for South Carolina, “exit surveys are probably the only tools to try to get feedback as people are leaving the workforce.”

Sharon Winslow Erickson, city auditor for San Jose, Calif., is certainly persuaded. “Without exit surveys,” she says, “we cannot determine what causes an employee to leave or what could be done to incentivize them to stay.”

Her city is in the heart of Silicon Valley and, as she points out, “when the economy heats up, it becomes very hard for us to hire.” At times like that, more employee losses come from resignation than retirement, putting the pressure on to retain staff.

Partially as a result of a recent audit that came out of Erickson’s shop, San Jose is in the early stages of implementing an exit interview program. One of the discoveries that city officials are making is that the timing of the process can be difficult.

Joe Angelo, San Jose’s human resources director, explains that many employees only tender their resignations within two weeks of their actual departure and “there is a lot on their plates: getting their office in order, getting managers up to speed on their projects and starting the transition to the new job.” With so many competing interests for an employee’s limited time, it’s easy for an exit survey to take a back seat.

This time-constraint issue is not unique to San Jose. That raises the question of how to make sure an exit interview takes place and provides valuable information.

According to South Carolina’s Wilkins, the best way is to do the exit interview one-on-one rather than in a written survey. Employees asked to fill in a survey form may decide that they’re just too busy to do it. But it’s somewhat more difficult for an employee to evade the task if it involves being called into a superior’s office. In addition, in a one-on-one conversation, the interviewer has the opportunity to delve into the specifics of an employee’s problems through follow-up questions. “When I’ve conducted exit interviews,” says Wilkins. “I’ve done them face to face. I’ve encouraged honest feedback and I explain the point. The point is to try to retain folks.”

As we’ve been mulling over the benefits of exit interviews, it struck us that, since the point is to avoid resignations, employers can check with employees periodically to see how they’re doing. Many governments try to uncover this information during annual performance reviews and at other employee check-ins. But the question of honesty comes up again. If employees are reticent to tell the whole truth after they’ve quit, how honest will they be when they’re hanging onto a position while job hunting elsewhere?