How to Act During an Exit Interview

November 15, 2016

When you’re unhappy with your current employer, there’s no better feeling than when you give notice to your boss and let them know you are leaving the company for a new job. And then there is the exit interview. 

Most companies meet with employees prior to their last day for an exit interview. It’s an opportunity for the human resources department to learn more about why an employee is leaving the company and what may be done to improve morale among staff going forward. And, for a disgruntled employee, it’s the perfect opportunity to “let them have a piece of my mind” and “give them what for.” But you should probably put more thought into how you act during the exit interview, because you may do more harm than good to your own reputation in the process. 

Here are some tips on how to act during the exit interview:

Plan Ahead: Never walk into an exit interview without a plan. You should really think about what you want to say, because if you walk into HR’s office without some sort of script in mind, you may veer off course and say something you might regret later. If you have an opportunity, practice your talking points with a loved one and get their take on what you’re going to say. Sometimes we don’t even know when we are being negative until someone else gasps at what we say. When we hear that sort of reaction, we know we have to rework our comments. 

Act Professionally: Remember that time when you first interviewed with the company, hoping to make a good enough impression that it would help your chances of employment? You should probably go into an exit interview with the same attitude. The exit interview is another opportunity to showcase the attitude that got you the job in the first place; you don’t want to leave the company with your supervisors thinking, “What a bad attitude… I’m so happy he’s gone.”

Instead, you should treat HR politely by answering their questions calmly, without malice. You should thank them for the opportunity to work there and reference some of the more positive aspects of the job. I, myself, have never had an exit interview with a company I had any ill will toward, but I have written letters of resignation to companies I left due to being unhappy. In those, I always find something nice to say — perhaps referencing something I learned or a project I enjoyed. Why? Because, it’s better to be the bigger person and walk out with your head held high while reminding them of the successes you had, before you take your talents elsewhere. 

Bite Your Tongue: You want to put your boss on blast so badly. “Why am I leaving?! I’ll tell you why I’m leaving. My boss is horrible. She’s a maniacal tyrant who only insulted my work and never offered any constructive criticism. And it’s too cold in my office. That’s why! Now let me tell you about Monica in IT.” Now you just look like a bitter person lashing out at everyone around you when you should just be happy that you found a new job you think you’ll like. Or you think you are so important that throwing people under the bus will save your colleagues from future torment. It won’t. More than likely, this type of rant will be ignored and will only serve to burn a bridge, a bridge you may need to cross again in your career path.

Rather than discuss how much you hate your boss, there are more diplomatic ways of voicing your reasons for leaving. I’ve said things such as, “I felt like I accomplished all I could here,” “A new manager came in, and we both wanted very different things from my department,” “I just needed a change,” or “I just wanted a new opportunity with more freedom and room to grow.” Some of that may be intended to insult, but when you say it in a positive tone, it is rarely ever used against you. 

Never Mention People by Name: I was working at one company and had an excellent relationship with my supervisor. But she was not happy with the company and did not enjoy a similar relationship with her own supervisor. She made a decision to leave, and in her last meeting with her supervisor, she said that I would make an excellent replacement to fill her role. And there went any chance I had of ever getting promoted. You see, the main boss’s dislike for my supervisor transferred over to me the minute my supervisor recommended me for the job. From then on, our connection was marred in negativity. Even though I expressed my desire to fill the position, I continuously pushed back my interview until someone outside the company filled the role. I was promised a title change and a bump in salary, because “I had earned it,” but I left the job before that could happen. While I didn’t have an exit interview, when the main boss questioned my decision to leave, I simply said, “I didn’t know if there was room for me to grow at the company, and I had a better opportunity elsewhere.” And that’s how you vent without venting. The moral of the story is that even when you think you are helping someone out, you may be hurting them. Keep the exit interview just about yourself, as it should be. 

Express a Desire to Help: You should always do your best to leave a good impression on the way out of the company. Whether you are talking in an exit interview or writing a resignation letter, you should offer your assistance in the waning days of your employment and even after, should your replacement run into issues that need your input. Most companies won’t take you up on the offer, but some will. It’s always nice to maintain a positive relationship with a previous employer. You never know when you may need that person as a reference.

The exit interview seems like a perfect opportunity to vent, but the final lesson here is to stop thinking in the moment and think long-term. You may be happy with yourself when you stick it to your boss as you leave the company, but in the long run, your impulsive behavior could have a detrimental impact on your career. Venting just isn’t worth the future aggravation. 

by Jon Minners

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