How (Not) To Handle Your Exit Interview

exit interviewIt’s Tom’s last week at office and he has already made a mental shift into the new office. It looks great, the opportunity is wonderful and he’s a bit nervous as well as excited.

There is one last hurdle to get over though.

The Exit Interview.

For many people, reasons for leaving their current job is not a happy one, especially if they are leaving for personal reasons (as they say, “People leave managers not companies…“).

If the work place is great, work is challenging, boss and colleagues cooperating and career looks promising – money alone doesn’t make much of a reason for quitting for many.

Which means that exit interviews might be looked at as a vehicle to “give it back for what all these people have done to me”, or put simply, to speak ones mind.

This could be a grave mistake of ones career.

The one that may come back and haunt in the future – worst, without even realizing that its origin was a silly exit interview outburst.

Read about how to prepare for a project manager job interview here.

Nick Corcodilos from Ask The Headhunter suggests to avoid the exit interview altogether.

Sounds strange?

Wait till you read the reasons.

Nick cautions that what you say during this interview might be used against you if there’s a legal tussle in the future. “It’s to protect the company from legal repercussions after you depart. That’s why they usually ask you to sign the exit interview notes. By gathering comments from you — especially the obligatory positive comments — the employer creates a record that it can use if, for some reason, you turn around and sue”, says Nick while admitting, “Yes, that’s a cynical view, but you need to consider it.”

No matter how much a company says it wants to look for pointers to help make it a better place for people to work at, in reality, they need not wait till a person leaves the organization to collect the feedback in an exit interview.

Doesn’t it sound logical?

Why would a company wants to lose an employee and THEN figure out what is wrong with the system?

They’d rather do it while they she is working in the organization. Isn’t prevention better than cure?

There are many ways to collect feedback from employees while they are working in the company –

  • During informal chat over tea/coffee/lunch
  • During social interactions – company events, team outings, annual functions, team building exercises – where ‘official’ environment dilutes, helping people open up
  • A month after a new employee joins the organization, get HR to have informal chat to figure what ‘oddities’ she has noticed in the environment
  • Get HR person to be the best friend of employee and understand their concerns. One of the companies I worked with had People Relation Officers to gauge if employees are happy or not.
  • Most of the suggestions indicate an underlying problem. Ask for suggestions in company-wide townhall/all-hands meetings and encourage people to share. This gives them a chance to talk about issues bothering them without pointing fingers
  • Keep a cardboard box for people to drop in anonymous suggestions and concerns by printing on a piece of paper (not handwritten, its easy to map it to a person)
  • Study appraisal discussion notes
  • Get people drunk at company events and hear what they say. NOoo! I’m just kidding. 🙂

In essence, stay away from exit interview.

Well, if it is a must to take the exit interview for whatever reasons, here are some guidelines to keep in mind. This is not a check-list, use your judgment to decide how you want to approach it. The bottom line is to stay away from trouble.

After all, there is no upside from an exit interview.

Now Tom needs to make sure there will be no downside.

Tom’s future employer might call up HR or his boss for a reference check.

Also, there is no guarantee that his current boss(es) will not join a company Tom is working at in future.

Remember, this is one interview where it is better to lie than being completely honest.

Alexandra Levit, the author of Blind Spots: 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success says, “when it comes to exit interviews, the general rule is, if you don’t have anything nice to say, lie.”

Do not burn bridges

In other words, “No bitching”. Do not talk negative about anyone in the company.

Not about the boss, colleague, team mate, HR, Admin, tea-vendor – no one. You do not want to burn bridges. Especially if you are going to take PMP exam and your application is audited, PMI will want to talk to your earlier manager(s). 🙂 Therefore, do-not-burn-bridges.

No praising the new employer

No matter how good the new place promises to be, do not glorify it. There is no need.

No salary discussions

Exit interview is a point of no return. This is no place for negotiation. No talk about salary will help – even if it was the reason for quitting.

As Nick says – don’t complain, don’t explain.

If you are looking for specific phrases to avoid saying during the exit interview, here are few from Jacquelyn Smith of Business Insider

“I never really liked [coworker],” or, “[Name] was never very nice to me.”

“My boss was the worst because…”

“This place is a sinking ship.”

“I heard [name] did [xyz],” or, “[Name] was actually the one responsible for that error.”

“No comment.”

“This company’s pay is not market-competitive,” or, “I’m leaving because I was offered a lot more money elsewhere.”

“I never really liked where I sat,” or, “The printers never worked.”

“This is the worst company I have ever worked for.”

“My new job/company is amazing.”

“I think [name] is really unhappy here,” or, “Nobody is happy here.”

“I’d never work here again”

Chances are, HR already knows about all the issues you may want to bring up.

Now the question is “what to say during exit interview”?

We know by now that it is better to,

  1. stay away from negatives like criticizing people, policies or work environment
  2. steer clear of stating real reason unless it is not about joining a new place (hey, you could be looking to start your own business!)

Some interviewers want to have something in the exit interview notes to show they have ‘discovered something’ or to simply have some fodder for office gossip.

This is the time to use tact. And change the subject. With a smile. Keep in mind that there may be no place for trust in this meeting. From both sides.

Talk about the positives

It could be about the policy that you felt was nice, or people.

Andy Teach, corporate veteran and author of From Graduation to Corporation: The Practical Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder One Rung at a Time says, “a departing employee should always mention their positive experiences with the company first and if you enjoyed working with any people in particular, mention them by name and explain why you enjoyed working with them”.

Praise the work, if that is not your real reason for leaving

Of course. If you liked the work and the challenges, mention it by all means. Add the names of people connected with your work – your team or others – that you enjoyed working with. People you learned from, people who you looked up to, people who you could mentor.

If you can make the interviewer realize, ever so subtly, that you were valuable you tend to be in good books of the company.

This may even help if you want to, in future, come back to this organization.

Consider it to be your hiring interview

Alan Henry, at LifeHacker, suggests this alternate way to look at it. That is to make sure it is not one-way communication, you make it two-way.

Ask about transferable employment benefits (PF in India, 401(K) plan in the US, for instance). Talk about tax deductions. Ask who should be your point of contact for collecting final papers. Even if you know it already.

And if the exit interviewer seems to be in the same boat as you, and highlights possible causes of quitting as something they are going through themselves – BE NEUTRAL. Do not give away your reason, if you don’t want to. Also, do not sympathize with the reason and make the interviewer consider that to be the real reason for your exit.

Tip – if you do not want to disclose the real reason for quitting, then don’t list so many things you liked in the company that the interviewer will deduce what is left unsaid and figure out the reason.

That is a technique reserved to answer PMP exam questions. 🙂

Hope this post helps you avoid few mistakes during exit interview that might prove to be damaging. If you want to share an experience that might help others, please do so in the Comments section below.

Thanks for your time, and have a great day!

Image courtesy: wallyg

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