Ask LH: How Honest Should I Be In My Exit Interview?

Ask LH: How Honest Should I Be In My Exit Interview?

Dear Lifehacker, My last day of work is this week, and I’m concerned about my exit interview. Do I go in and tell them everything that’s really made me want to leave this place, or should I just keep my mouth shut and lie about how things have been and why I wanted to find another job? Should I lie if they ask me anything specific about my boss or coworkers? Signed, Totally Checked Out

Title photo by mtellin.

Dear Checked Out,

This is a tricky situation — it sounds like you have some animosity towards your current job and that you’re happy to leave, but you don’t necessarily want to screw things over for everyone behind you, or the people you may like once you’re gone. Good on you for even asking the question. The answer, however, depends on you, how bad things are, and how likely you are to need the professional connections you’ve made at your current job.

Remember Why You’re Leaving

You didn’t mention why you were leaving your current job, but think hard about that reason before you barge into your exit interview and tell all or start flipping tables. If you’re actually leaving because the new gig offers a better opportunity, more chances for advancement, better benefits, or a bigger pay cheque, all of those things are legitimate statements to make in an exit interview. If you feel stifled in your current role and the new job gives you a chance to move on and work on more exciting things, there’s nothing wrong with saying so to the people interviewing you on the way out. Photo by Joe Loong.

On the other hand, if you’re leaving for highly personal reasons, like you and your boss just don’t get along, your coworkers are nosy jerks who won’t leave you alone, or you really just don’t feel like you’re fitting in with your environment or the work you’re doing, you may not want to go into details about your personal conflicts, and instead just point out that you’re moving on for personal reasons and you’re looking for a place where you feel like you’ll fit in better. Ultimately, there’s no reason to start burning bridges if the reasons are professional or personal — try to keep your emotions in check.

Do You Need Your Connections, or Are You OK Burning Your Bridges?

Speaking of burning bridges, decide before your interview whether or not you need the professional connections you’ve made at your current job. Most jobs are a mix of people and responsibilities that we both like and hate, so there’s no reason to lash out at your friends in the office because your boss is a jerk, for example. Even if you’re OK burning your bridges, remember the old adage: what goes around, comes around. Keep your highly inflammatory and personal rhetoric to yourself, and try to keep a cool head. By all means, be honest in your exit interview and let them know if their policies made you want to leave. When we say honest, we still mean tactful — if you really want to get your point across about the problems you had, the best way to do it is diplomatically and calmly. Going in angry and venting to HR is a quick way to get everyone involved to ignore everything you say and write you off as an isolated malcontent. Photo by cristovao (Shutterstock).

Some people would advocate letting loose and spilling everything if you’re leaving a job where you know you’ll never need references, no one will ever call to verify your employment, and you’ll never speak to anyone at that company again. We would remind you that “never” is a very long time, and you never know when someone will do a background check and dig up a really old employer (for example, if you apply for a security clearance.) it’s tempting, but we think it’s counterproductive, and letting loose probably won’t change anything after you’re gone the way honesty and calmness will.

Treat It Like Your Hiring Interview: Ask Questions

Just like an employment interview, an exit interview shouldn’t be a one-sided conversation, and it definitely shouldn’t feel like an interrogation. It’s your opportunity to ask questions as well, even though the people you’ll speak to will likely be HR representatives. Ask whether or not you should put your suggestions or your feedback in writing, and ask who’ll see your feedback when you hand it over to them. Ask them who they’ll share the results of your interview with, and make sure you take the opportunity to ask any final questions about your last pay, when your benefits expire, your superanuation or any other logistical questions you may have. Make sure you have a chance to collect your belongings if you haven’t already, and ask who you can get a hold of at the company if you need anything after you leave (if you left something behind, or forgot to hand in a key or badge.)

Move On with Dignity

There’s a huge debate over whether you should let loose and tell all (“otherwise the company can’t fix problems and make changes!”) or just smile, lie, and move on (“no one wants to hear it, and they’ll likely be mad at you for complaining on the way out”), in an exit interview, and we would suggest you walk somewhere in the middle. Don’t be afraid to explain why you’re leaving, even if the company’s policies or your current position play a big role in it. Just do so diplomatically and keep your criticisms confined to the company as a whole. Prepare for your meeting by thinking about how you’ll phrase those criticisms without burning your bridges, and most importantly, make sure that even when you discuss your reasons for leaving that you focus on the bright, new opportunities ahead for you. Good luck! Photo by Brett Lider.


PS How have you handled exit interviews in the past? Do you find it better to tell all, or step back and couch your answers? If you’re an HR rep or a manager, how do you hope your departing employees handle their exit interviews? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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    • They do it a lot more in the US, however for high profile jobs in AU, they sometimes do it as well (i have had one or two exit interviews when changing jobs, and i hold a CCIE-S and alot of JUNOS stuff as well).

      the exit interviews from my point of view have been about my employeer wanting me to stay, more then knowing why i am going though…. 😛

        • better be a damn good beer!

          haha, i usually leave for better pay, or if the company i am working for has a super bitchy HR department (well, i only left once because of the HR department :P)

          • Um aren’t HR departments all super bitchy? It’s like all the mean girls from high school just move on to HR and continue their retardedness there…

  • Leaving my last 2 jobs I had exit interviews.
    For the first I let them know that I was moving purely because the counter offer was better than they could match. We left on good terms.
    For the second I was changing careers totally and did not need any of the contacts for future work. I was honest for my reasons for leaving (new career) but also let them know what problems I saw in their business practices. I did it without emotion and in a candid and informative way. I don’t think they took any of my comments on board, it seemed to be more a formality than anything else.

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