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Exit Interview Do’s and Don’ts

5 tips on saying what's on your mind without hurting your career

With a robust job market percolating along, you may be thinking about changing jobs. (In March 2015, 2.8 million people voluntarily quit, up from 2.4 million in March 2014 when the job market was dicier.)

If you’ll be quitting, you’ll likely be told to go to an exit interview before hightailing it out. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to do this right. Say the wrong things and you could harm your career if you either want to get a reference from your nearly-ex employer or one day decide you want to come back.

I’ll give you a few pointers in a moment, based on my own experience and my interviews with eight career consultants and HR pros who spoke on and off the record.

In three of my exit interviews, my gut urged me to shout, “I’m outta here!” and bare my soul about why I was jumping ship.

I’ve resigned from five jobs during my career, and each time I dreaded the exit interview. In many ways, it was more nerve-wracking than the interview I had before being offered the job. In three exit interviews, my gut urged me to shout, “I’m outta here!” and bare my soul about why I was jumping ship. I fancied that I wanted to help my soon-to-be former colleagues by letting the powers that be know what they’d better fix if they didn’t want to lose more employees like me.

But my head, thankfully, told me to zip my lip. And, boy, am I glad I did. I’m still regularly hired to work as an expert columnist and writer for former employers and bosses from my previous staff positions.

What HR Wants From an Exit Interview

In a typical exit interview, an HR employee will ask you to fill out a few forms. Most of the time, HR doesn’t really want to hear anything. You’ve resigned. It’s over, done, goodbye. If you do say something provocative, that just creates paperwork because your interviewer is obligated to document it.

But you may have the utterly human instinct to “want to leave the camp site cleaner than when you found it,” as one of my Next Avenue editors put it. She wondered: How do you give constructive criticism to strengthen the organization while expressing frustration or anger without it being taken as sour grapes or bitterness?

My advice: Proceed with caution, or your words can haunt you down the road.

Closing the Door on a Future Relationship

Consider this tale I heard from Catherine Allan, 69, a media executive: “When I was in my 20s I worked at a very successful record company in the Bay Area,” said Allan. “After about three years of working there, my department was downsized and I was suddenly laid off. I told one of the senior leaders what I thought was wrong with the company in very emotional and negative terms and remember leaving his office in a huff. I don’t think I slammed the door physically, but it was in my body language and I certainly closed the door on any future relationship with the company.”

Allan now thinks her criticisms did little to improve the corporate culture. “I regretted that exit for years afterwards, especially my rudeness, and it influenced an attitude I have held to firmly ever since: never close doors!” she told me.

Maggie Mistal Portrait EmbedThe “never close doors” view is wise. During an exit interview, it’s vital that you be pleasant and professional, even if you find that hard to do. Remember — this could be the last impression you’ll leave your employer with. “Overall, my advice to clients who are preparing for an exit interview is: Good endings make good beginnings,” advised Maggie Mistal, a New York-City based career consultant and executive coach.

5 Tips for Exit Interviews

For your next exit interview, follow these five tips:

1. Vent ahead of time, not during the interview. An HR manager doesn’t want to hear, during your exit interview, that you think your manager was a jerk. While it may be irresistible to use the meeting to unload, once you’ve made the decision to leave an employer, airing your gripes won’t do you any good. Your time to talk about concerns was while you were employed.

“One of my clients had so much pent-up frustration as she was leaving a job that she was worried it would boil over in the exit interview,” said Mistal. To avoid this, before the interview, Mistal recommended the woman write a “no-holds-barred” resignation letter to her soon-to-be former boss with painstaking detail about every aspect of the job that caused her to resign. But the letter wouldn’t go to the boss; it would be given to Mistal.

This approach helped the woman privately vent her strong emotions and gave coach and client a chance to turn her concerns into productive, constructive criticism in the exit interview, according to Mistal.

“It also gave us a chance to see where she was the issue, where her approach to situations made things worse and how she could break those negative patterns going forward,” Mistal recalls.

2. Plan and prepare for the session. Take the exit interview as conscientiously as you would an interview for a new job, Mistal advised. In addition to working through your emotions in advance, speak to an objective third party about your issues so you can bring them up in a way that’s of service to the next person who will be in your job, said Mistal.

By framing your opinions to demonstrate that you’re thinking about what’s best for the company, you’ll have a far greater chance of having a real influence and of being remembered well.

Allan, who is preparing to leave another company where she has worked for more than three decades, is planning a new approach this time around. “I feel a responsibility to talk about the very real problem areas,” she told me. “But having worked here for such a long time, I really want to do it in a constructive ‘big picture’ way that points to possibilities for doing things differently in the future.”

Her exit interview strategy is to “warn against moving too far away from one of the company’s stated values, which is to treat employees with respect and help each other to succeed,” she said.

3. Exit with grace by focusing on the positive. If you’re too candid and critical, you’ll come across as being bitter or out to damage someone. “The challenge is to provide non-emotional feedback,” said Vivian Rank, a consultant for The Society for Human Resource Management. “You don’t want to rail. That kind of feedback doesn’t get heard.”

Companies do want to learn ways to improve the workplace culture and how they can keep employees more engaged, she added. “If you’re leaving for a certain company or a better salary, that’s good information for a company to have, too,” noted Rank.

If you care about the company and want to make a difference, “make sure your comments are fact-based and professional,” she said. “In general, most employers want to know what you liked about your job and the company and what you would change if you could. But keep it simple.”

Be sure to mention how much you learned there and why both you and the company benefited from your time as an employee. You can also say that you were honored to have been part of the organization and are inspired by their mission and products, if this is true.

It’s reasonable, though, to say that you felt like your skills weren’t being used completely and to offer examples, if that was the case. And it’s OK to discuss general actions of your manager or a company policy that had an impact on your decision to leave.

4. Provide useful facts. Are you leaving because your salary or benefits were not competitive with the company’s competitors (one of whom you may be headed to)? Were there not enough opportunities for promotion? Employers love competitive data, even if it doesn’t make them look great.

5. Have your own informal exit interviews. If you really want to leave your campsite clean, some of your most effective exit conversations can take place outside of the formal exit interview. As you prepare to clean out your desk and bid adieu, you might consider sharing with staffers (and perhaps your manager) why you felt working there was special. Then, you can casually toss out any practical ideas about how they might improve the work environment based on your experience to make it an even better place to work.

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