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How to decide what to share in an exit interview

Depending on your experience, the conversation might be uncomfortable, or could even affect your long-term career prospects. So should you tell the truth or plead the fifth?

How to decide what to share in an exit interview
[Photo: corners74/iStock]

You’ve got a new job, and you’re excited about taking the next step in your career. But before you head out the door, your current employer will probably want to conduct an exit interview. A study by the Harvard Business Review found that about three-quarters of companies sit down with departing employees with the intention of revealing potential problems in their own organization.

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But what does that mean for you? Depending on your experience, the conversation might be uncomfortable, or could even affect your long-term career prospects. So should you tell the truth or plead the fifth?

How you approach an exit interview will depend on the circumstance, says Adam Goodman, director of the Center for Leadership at Northwestern University. “Leaving voluntarily and for a better opportunity is different than leaving for personal reasons, such as moving to a different geography, or because the role just hasn’t worked out for you, or you feel professionally stuck,” he says. “Leaving because of a layoff or difficult work environment would also affect what you should say.”

Why you’re leaving will impact what you have to say, but here are four things you probably should skip:

1. Giving only negative feedback

Select no more than three topics or messages that you think would benefit the organization, says Goodman. “At least one should be a positive, and the negative one should be framed as ‘what would have made this a better experience for me,'” he says. “While it’s appropriate to describe negative experiences, do not infer or talk about the motivations of others or the organization. Focus on what happened and the effect it had on you.”

HR departments are looking for constructive feedback that will help their company and other employees grow, says Sarah Sunderman, director of human resources, compliance, and talent relations for Hire Dynamics.

“When an employee begins to talk negatively about a boss or coworker some HR officers might shut down and not ‘hear’ what you’re trying to say even though it may have merit,” she says. “If you speak constructively your message will be received and heard.”

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However, if some form of harassment is part of your reason for leaving and you feel relatively safe, Goodman recommends being specific and honest about the circumstances that led you to depart. Who interviews you, whether they will be receptive, and whether they’re influential regarding any changes you believe are desired matters, he says.

“If both receptivity and influence are present, then it’s worthwhile to be specific, clear, and honest in your responses,” he says. “If neither are present, it’s best to be polite and brief.”

2. Insults

Refrain from saying or doing anything extreme, says Mary Abbajay, president of Careerstone Group, talent development consultants, and author of Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss. “Don’t say ‘Fuck you’ or ‘Take this job and shove it,'” she says. “The thing you want to remember is to find a balance, speaking the truth with positivity if you care about the company. Tell the truth to some extent, but don’t sound harpy.”

If you are leaving a difficult boss or work environment, resist the temptation to get a few digs in as you go, adds Shonn Colbrunn, executive director of the Boerigter Center for Calling and Career at Hope College. “Don’t insult anyone,” he says. “The interviewer will pick up on your negativity and suspect that there are two sides to the story. This will work against any valid points you are making.”

3. Sharing information about coworkers

Don’t throw anybody by name under the bus, says Abbajay. “You don’t want to say, ‘Tom Jones in accounting is a jerk,'” she says.

Own your feedback by not attaching your opinion to your coworkers, says Colbrunn. “If you know that other remaining employees feel the same way as you, it’s good to mention that as well, but speak in generalities,” he says. “Your former coworkers may not want to be identified individually.”

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4. Gloating

You may be excited about your new job, but don’t gloat, says Abbajay. “Don’t compare,” she says. “And don’t make it about the raise you may be getting in your salary.”

Even if you hated your job, put a positive spin on why you’re leaving. “You can say, ‘I’ve learned so much here, and it’s time to take the skills you’ve helped me polish to a bigger challenge or new adventure,'” says Abbajay.

While you may have nothing to lose, that doesn’t mean you should forget good manners, says Colbrunn. “It is often advised not to burn bridges in case you want to work there again,” he says. “In our rapidly changing, interconnected world, you may end up approaching your exit interviewer or a leader at your former company as a potential customer, colleague, or new boss elsewhere. In all that you do, including exit interviews, do your best to leave a good impression.”

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