Your Exit Interview: Things You Should (and Shouldn’t) Say

Omitting key information from résumés and job applications can have serious consequences for job seekers. But for departing employees with one foot out the door (and the resignation already submitted), there’s no point in brutal honesty, especially in the context of an exit interview.

The stark truth is that companies rarely act on suggestions or complaints made by workers who are leaving. “Don’t be a hero on the way out,” advised Robbie Abed, a former IT consultant, founder and author of “Fire Me I Beg You.”

If you really want to make a difference, he added, “be a hero while you’re there.”

With that in mind, here are three things you should (and shouldn’t) say during exit interviews.

When to Skip the Interview

If you work for a large company with thousands of employees, few people will likely even notice if you politely opt out of an exit interview; this is especially true at those firms that tend to schedule such interviews at the absolute last minute, as a pure formality.

It’s a different matter at smaller and midsize firms, where you should agree to the exit interview process so you don’t burn any bridges.

“If you really want to have a productive conversation, invite your former boss to coffee or lunch in a month or two [after you leave],” Abed suggested. “He’s far more likely to be open and candid with you about his decisions and authority after you leave the organization.”

Take the High Road

No matter how bad things were or how poorly you were treated, use your interview to focus on the positives, such as the rewarding aspects of your job. “The interviewer is sure to ask why you’re leaving and how the company and your manager could improve,” explained Erik Dietrich, a former IT consultant and founder of DaedTech LLC.

Since you have everything to lose and nothing to gain at this point, pivoting to the career benefits of your new opportunity is a more effective strategy, he added. Focusing on the future can keep you from sounding like a bitter complainer or going on a negative rant. Highlighting the things that attracted you to a new position indirectly communicates why you were dissatisfied with your old job.

For instance, you can explain that it wasn’t an easy decision, but that you received a new opportunity that was too good to pass up.

If you feel compelled to offer criticism, throw a couple of softballs out there. For instance, mention that the 401(k) match could have been higher, or that you prefer a culture that invites bold risk-taking.

“Stick to broad cultural things when offering suggestions for improvement,” Dietrich said. “Otherwise, the interviewer may get defensive or respond by making a counter-offer, leaving you in an awkward position.”

Remember: The Exit Interview is On-Record

No matter what you’re told, any negative feedback you provide to HR will likely make its way back to your boss and colleagues. Some companies may even ask you to sign off on the interviewer’s notes. And since you may be unaware of the interviewer’s hidden agenda, don’t put anything in writing.

Recognize that it’s a very small world out there, Abed noted: “Don’t express frustration or mention names… You never know when you might cross paths with a former teammate or boss again.”

And if you’re planning to file a lawsuit or claim against the company, it’s possible that things said in an exit interview might impact your case. You certainly don’t want to repeat office gossip or accuse your boss or co-workers of inappropriate behaviors (which could be construed as slander).

It’s definitely best to keep the exit interview professional and productive. After all, you’re already voting with your feet.

7 Responses to “Your Exit Interview: Things You Should (and Shouldn’t) Say”

  1. Mark Mohr

    Where is the fun in that? Sometimes, it’s worth burning it all the way to the ground. I once got in an exit interview and told the HR person that I don’t need to say anything, you already know what (who) the problem is. She just nodded. The problem is still there 4.5 years later.

  2. My son worked at Target – for 3 days. After 3 days of unpacking 1″ square boxes of earrings and hanging them on displays, he quit. At his exit interview, the interviewer (the store manager) said “You know, if you quit after only 3 days, you can never work at a Target store again.”. My son replied “That’s what I’m counting on.”

  3. Alton Moore

    Why would I go to one of these things if I wasn’t going to tell the truth? The author seems to suggest all these softball politically-correct approaches to avoiding the truth.

    If I’m leaving, why would I want to work with so-and-so jackass again? I would want to avoid any company they had any connection with.

    The exit interview is an opportunity for the company to deflate any emotions you had (usually negative) about working at the place. I wouldn’t even go to one.

  4. Paul McMillon

    The advice in this article is exactly what is wrong in this country now. Why am I going to go out of my way and pretend a give one cent what happens to a company that engages in predatory HR practices and treats their employees as commodities that are as easily replaced as the coffee pot in the breakroom. I’m going to agree to the exit interview with HR, and hopefully my direct report, then conveniently exit the building an hour prior. Then I’m going to hit the job boards and forward any and all opportunities I find to existing employees of that company in hopes of a referral fee. 😉

  5. I agree with Paul and a few others. The author is advocating dishonesty, aiding and abetting probably bad company practices, at a time when honesty is needed. it would have been far better to encourage tactfulness in explaining what could be done to improve the company and make it better for existing and future employees. Intimating that your comments may never even be considered is simply saying, “I would ignore what you and others say…” They may not do anything now, but eventually maybe a change of management would look at exit interviews and consider making fundamental changes when hey notice a trend in the comments. I agree that pointing out somewhat better conditions at a new job is good and also highlighting benefits gained from this company is great.

    • Good points. I agree about all, especially that the author is advocating dishonesty, aiding and abetting probably bad company practices, at a time when honesty is needed. That is because the author is a coward and trying to enable others to take a coward approach.