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How to nail the exit interview—and why it matters

The founder of FlexJobs explains the questions you may be asked and how to have a mutually beneficial conversation where both parties feel heard, can tie up loose ends, and part on respectful—and hopefully positive—terms.

How to nail the exit interview—and why it matters
[Photo: Milo Bauman/Unsplash]
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The U.S. job market is jam-packed with opportunities right now, with a record 10 million job openings and employers clamoring to woo new employees. With two-thirds of Americans looking for new jobs, and almost 70% considering a career change, it’s safe to assume that many people will be handing in their notices in the coming months.

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But before they go, they’re likely to be asked to participate in an exit interview. In fact, more than 90% of Fortune 500 companies hold exit interviews, and I know this to be the case from partnering with thousands of employer partners as the CEO and founder of FlexJobs and Remote.co.

How should a professional handle this situation? One positive approach is to see the exit interview as an opportunity to help the teammates and company you’re leaving with some honest, helpful feedback. Another way to handle exit interviews is to see it as a chance to leave on a respectful note and not burn bridges.

Whatever the particular situation, it’s easy to see how exit interviews should be handled with careful consideration. Here’s how.

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Why are you leaving?

Why they ask it: This is probably the universal question that’s asked in an exit interview. The company wants to know if you’re leaving for money, a better title, a partner’s job transfer across the country, family reasons, etc. They are trying to figure out if there’s something the company can do better or if your leaving is something out of their control.

How to answer it: Be honest and strategic. For example, if you’re leaving for more pay, you may want to say, “I thoroughly enjoyed my work and team at this company, but it was also important to me to be compensated closer to market value, which ultimately didn’t seem like a possibility here.” You don’t have to reveal your new salary level unless you feel comfortable doing so.

If it’s for personal reasons, feel free to share what you feel is professionally relevant about your situation, and consider providing feedback the employer could use productively to help retain other employees in the future. “I have to care for a relative and so flexibility is very important right now. Unfortunately, the company wasn’t able to provide the level of schedule flexibility I needed.”

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Did you have the tools to succeed at your job?

Why they ask it: An employer should give you the things you need to do your job. This isn’t just physical tools, like a computer or phone. Tools include training, professional development, mentoring, and timely feedback. HR is asking if you had what you needed to succeed because if you didn’t, it might be something they can provide current and future employees.

How to answer it: This is a case where you can probably be more honest than with other questions, but choose wisely. If your biggest problem was a loud office or a lack of training, bring these things up as they may be easy to fix.

For example, “I’m not really a fan of open office plans. And the bench-style seating didn’t work for me. It was very distracting. Also, I would have liked to receive feedback about my work more often than I did. I’m not the kind of person that likes to wait for my annual evaluation to see how I’m doing.”

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How was your manager?

Why they ask it: There’s a saying: People don’t quit jobs. They quit managers. And this is exactly what HR is trying to find out. Did you quit because of your manager?

How to answer it: If your manager was fantastic, say so. That’s a time for open praise and honesty. If, however, you and your manager didn’t get along, that could be a time to keep things more general. You can go with something like, “We didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but we managed to succeed on multiple projects.”

What did you like and dislike about the job?

Why they ask it: They’re asking you this because there’s a chance that they want to compare your notes to previous employees who had your role, or they may rethink the position.

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How to answer it: Talk honestly about what you liked and about what you disliked, but keep things professional. Or, feel free to make a small (but tactful and tasteful) joke about your dislike. “I really like the amount of training I received over the years. I learned a lot about the strategic aspects of marketing and will be able to use those skills wherever I go. I disliked the coffee. But, seriously, there wasn’t anything I ‘disliked,’ but I do wish the company offered more remote and flexible work options.”

Would you recommend the company/job to others?

Why they ask it: If you say yes, then obviously you like the job and company. If you say no, HR wants to know why to see if they can fix it.

How to answer it: If your answer is yes, explain why as deeply as you want. If your answer is no, then you need to be honest about that, without going too deep. “Overall, I have enjoyed my time here, but that’s my experience. If someone asked me if they should apply here, I would ask them more questions about their preferred work environments, career goals, and communication styles. It’s probably not for everybody.”

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What are your recommendations?

Why they ask it: This is an open-ended question that usually comes near the end of your exit interview. HR is trying to see if there’s anything you want to add that maybe they didn’t (or couldn’t) ask about.

How to answer it: Sometimes, you’ll have specific ideas that are perfectly safe answers. For example, if the health insurance is lacking, remote work options are too restrictive, or the time-off policy isn’t great, you might suggest improving these. “Two weeks off a year just wasn’t enough for me. You may want to consider adding more PTO to the benefits package or allow work-from-home days to attract more candidates and reduce burnout.”

Legal details

During an exit interview, you may be asked to sign legal documents. These can include a non-disclosure agreement and a non-disparagement agreement. The non-disclosure agreement generally covers “business secrets.” For example, you agree not to talk about the company’s product strategies with anyone.

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A non-disparagement agreement, though, is different because it’s an agreement not to speak poorly about the company or things related to the company like products, services, and executives. In many cases, a non-disparagement agreement also means that the employer won’t speak badly about you.

However, many non-disparagement agreements are broad and can include communications such as social media and review sites.

As you approach your exit interview, remember that your strategy is within your control, and you can choose to say as little or as much as you feel is appropriate. It’s also a good time to remember that your feedback could have consequences beyond today, both for you and for your soon-to-be-former colleagues. So consider your personal experience as an employee at the company, what might help the team and company you’re leaving to know, and whether you’d potentially like to work with these folks again when deciding how to answer any questions you’re asked. The goal is to have a mutually beneficial conversation where both parties feel heard, can tie up loose ends, and part on respectful—and hopefully positive—terms.

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Sara Sutton is the CEO and founder of FlexJobs.