How to handle an exit interview

State the facts but avoid burning your bridges through emotional venting
by Bethan Rees


Job hopping is becoming the norm for some, with fewer people staying in their jobs for life. The Deloitte global millennial survey 2019 finds that of 13,416 millennials, 49% would leave their current job in two years and just 28% have plans to stay beyond five years.

After handing in a resignation, you may be invited for an exit interview with HR. In a blog for breathe, a cloud-based HR software provider, Melissa Jones says: “An exit interview is not dissimilar to an interview when you’re recruiting someone, but rather than assessing someone’s ability for the job you’re quizzing them about their reasons for leaving and areas for company improvement.” It’s a chance for an employer to find out what the business is doing well and what needs improving.

However, don’t treat it as an “emotional venting session”, writes Rebecca Zucker, executive coach and founding partner at leadership development firm Next Step Partners, in a Harvard Business Review article. Instead, stick to the facts, be “calm and constructive [and] open and direct in your responses”. This applies “whether you are leaving to pursue a new opportunity, escape a toxic leader or environment, seek better work-life balance, make a career change, or all of the above”.

But how open and direct should you be in your exit interview? asks writer Jacquelyn Smith in an article for Business Insider. She quotes author and international business speaker Michael Kerr, who says: “It’s not a black-and-white issue. You should think about how truthful you want to be, and when it’s okay to withhold details.”

“Generally speaking,” writes Smith, “Kerr says you should be as honest as you can without divulging confidential information.”

Why you’re leaving

The answer to this is usually fairly straightforward, writes Zucker. “Perhaps you were approached, unsolicited, by an executive recruiter with an exciting new role that was also a step up in title and pay. Or maybe you are relocating to be closer to family or to support your spouse’s new job. Or perhaps you are burned out and need a break to reflect on what you really want in your career and life. This is helpful for the organisation to know and can allow the exit interviewer to probe further in the appropriate areas.”

In an article for The Guardian Jobs, Nick Thompson, a career coach, echoes Zucker’s warning about taking it as an opportunity to vent. “If you really do believe that you need to make the business aware of something inappropriate or detrimental, just speak the facts. Rein in the tide of emotion. Do not express an opinion, just give examples. So, don’t say that your boss is an idiot. Say, for example, that no one in the department has been paid correctly for six months.”

Your (soon to be ex) colleagues

An exit interview can be a good occasion to put your colleagues on a pedestal and highlight their positive attributes. It can also be an opening to do the opposite, but this must be handled sensitively. This is an opportunity to recognise good managers and leaders, highlighting what made them so good, as well as identify toxic ones. If your manager empowered you to make decisions and has shown good emotional intelligence, that’s helpful information for the organisation,” writes Zucker. “Just as helpful is knowing about those who may be detracting from a positive working environment or are even a contributing factor to your decision to leave.” She gives an example of a bullying boss, and advises that rather than approaching this as a “telling on” exercise, you should consider this as highlighting issues in your organisation to make it better for your former colleagues.  

Furthering the point of presenting facts rather than opinions is an article by BioSpace, a news site for life science professionals. It reads: “Try to focus your examples on larger issues that have affected your role, department or the organisation as a whole. If you had a personal dispute with a co-worker, for example, that probably isn’t an appropriate issue or complaint to bring up in the exit interview because it’s a one-on-one problem, unless of course you can point to specific ways that the company mismanages conflict.”

Areas of improvement and positive comments

Try not to limit feedback to strictly negative comments, advises BioSpace. “A company not only wants to know about their shortcomings, but also what they’re getting right so they can do more of that.” Zucker echoes this point: “Just as individuals need to hear positive feedback to know what they should continue doing, so do organisations." For example, she says, this could include specific benefits offered, investments made in your career development, or the company culture.

However, identifying areas of improvement is also key. “These may also be the factors that would have kept you from leaving (if there are any). These recommendations may include things like more flexible work options, more competitive compensation (data is always useful here if you are able to share this), a culture that is more welcoming of dissenting views, [and] better upward feedback mechanisms,” writes Zucker.

There are ways of being honest without being bitter. As the BioSpace article says, it’s about the way you phrase things: “It’s all about knowing how to give constructive feedback that’s honest yet not overtly negative or disrespectful. An employer will be much more likely to see your feedback as valuable if it’s communicated professionally and honestly, but free from overt anger, resentment or bitterness,” the article recommends. “It may help here to keep in mind that the exit interview isn’t meant to be a therapy session for disgruntled employees to unload all of their pent-up frustrations on HR. Rather, you’re performing another professional duty for your employer by giving them insider information that they can then use to improve their company, their strategies, their culture and their teams.”

You will have valid reasons for leaving your job, but in a world where we’re so connected, it’s increasingly difficult to fully leave a job behind. Bumping into ex-colleagues (or ex-bosses) can happen, particularly if you’re moving jobs within the same sector, so you should be cautious about what you say in your exit interview. Plus, you might have to call on them further down the line. Stick to the facts and leave your personal gripes at the door.

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Published: 14 Feb 2020
  • Soft Skills
  • The Review
  • Career Development
  • exit interview
  • hr
  • culture
  • Career advice
  • Bullying

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