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Nick Gilmour

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Keep it Classy in an Exit Interview (Even If You’re Happy to Be Leaving)

Many organizations have dispensed with conducting exit interviews for a simple reason; an employee who wishes to leave on good terms is less likely to be completely honest.   Since retaining a referral from your previous position, and building a portfolio of positive recommendations from past employers is so critical, employees are not always compelled to paint an accurate picture, about why they are leaving.

If you have been invited to participate in an exit interview, declining the interview can also result in a negative comment on your personnel file, or impact your performance referrals for future jobs.  While exit, interviews can be exceedingly awkward, we’ll discuss the motivation for the employer, and how you can provide some input that is of value, to successfully complete your tenure on a positive note.

Why Do Employers Conduct Exit Interviews?

One of the most frequent questions our recruiters get asked, is about exit interviews.   If an employee has decided to move on to another employment opportunity, it can be difficult to understand why the employer would want to know the specifics.  After all, when an employee has given written notice, isn’t the period of actionable effort and retention a bit moot?

Employers in general, conduct exit interviews to gain valuable insights that they may not be able to acquire from someone who is still working for the organization.  In the sincerest form, employers expect honesty, and will ask questions to try to learn about cultural, work load and organizational issues that could be addressed to improve retention.

Do not be offended if your employer has asked you for an interview; consider it to be a compliment instead.  The employer is acknowledging that they have lost someone valuable to their team, and they want to identify any problems that they may be able to correct, before hiring someone new for the role.   It is a valuable opportunity for the employer to address any issues that may be contributing to employee turnover.

What Do Employers Really Want to Know?

Perhaps the most cringeworthy part of any exit interview, is when the HR Manager, or perhaps your former manager (depending on who is conducting the interview), asks for details about your personal reason(s) for leaving.    Rest assured that both the manager and the human resource department already have a sense if the departure was related to an interpersonal conflict, but there are other factors that an employer may want to investigate, including:

  • the competitiveness of salary comparative to other employers in the same space.
  • the level of responsibility and work load for the position.
  • the value of perks and benefits, such as health insurance, vacation time, or the opportunity to telecommute from home (flexibility) due to long daily travel times.
  • toxicity in the work environment, bullying, prejudice, gender bias or other concerns.

What employers do not want to hear is excessive criticism of the management team.   Again, if one or more managers contributed to your decision to leave the organization, position the conflict as a personal one, and avoid disparaging the manager.   While you may feel the need to be bluntly honest about personality conflicts, stick to professional performance, and suggestions about management style, rather than negative reflections that feel more personal, than professional, in terms of critique.

How to Answer Questions About Dissatisfaction

Unfortunately, the option to withhold any negative feedback in an exit interview is not only difficult, it can damage the relationship between you and your former employer.  Common sense would dictate that if you were entirely satisfied with your job, that you wouldn’t be leaving.  The onus is on the employee to provide constructive criticism that is actionable for the employer, to conduct a professional and meaningful exit interview.

Be honest, but avoid casting negative opinions against other staff members.  Your critique about other employees (if they were a factor in your decision to leave) should be fair, and neither offensive or defensive in nature.   If the work was distributed unevenly, tell the interviewer.  If you felt that gossip, or malicious social habits contributed to a negative and stressful work environment, share not only who was to blame, but how the employer may be able to improve the situation for workers who remain.

Stay friendly in your conversation tone, and helpful in the way you offer suggestions that the employer may consider useful. Your concern for the productivity of the team, and the success of the organization (even after your departure) is a powerful statement about your professional integrity.  One that leaves a lasting, and positive impression that is likely to be shared by your former employer, when asked to provide a recommendation.

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