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The delicate art of the exit interview
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Two workers in an interview room
When departing workers are face to face with HR, should they be honest? Should they lie? Maybe it’s not that simple.
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A worker and an HR professional are sitting down in a small meeting room, staring at each other. Why are you leaving? HR asks. I got a better pay packet, the worker might say, or I’ll have a more senior title. The HR person nods. Is there anything else we should know? they ask. The worker pauses. Yes, they think. This place is a nightmare. 

Yet, they smile, shake their head and say, Thanks for the opportunity. 

As the number of workers quitting continues to tick up amid the Great Resignation, soon-to-be-former employees are finding themselves in exit interviews. The process is straightforward for many – provide HR with your reason for leaving in vague, palatable terms, and shake some hands on the way out. 

Going the neutral route, even if it involves a little fibbing, can work for many employees, and experts say being cagey is not necessarily a bad thing. But what about those who want to give negative feedback, or even bring down the ship? Is there a way to do it – and a reason to? 

Maybe. Although there’s no universal solution to how to handle an exit interview, there’s one thing all workers may want to consider: decide what they want out of the sit-down, then use the interaction to get it. It’s a “selfish” approach – but one that may just deliver the most dividends for a worker moving on. 

A selfless act… 

The exit interview is, undeniably, for the ultimate benefit of the employer. 

Typically, organisations ask for exit interviews to get a better sense of what’s happening inside the company – things to which they may not always be privy on the management side. “It’s a way to find out what is happening, or what has happened, that may be motivating this employee… to leave,” says Yuletta Pringle, knowledge advisor at US-based Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM). “Generally, an employer is conducting an exit interview so they can find out why is the person leaving? Could it be pay? Might it be benefits?” 

Since these kinds of questions don’t directly benefit an outgoing worker, participating in one of these sit-downs is a “selfless” act, says Jill Cotton, a London-based PR and marketing manager for global jobs site Glassdoor. Giving constructive feedback is, reductively, a magnanimous thing to do – not an obligation.

For many businesses, these are the only moments where those honest conversations do happen - Ben Branson-Gateley

Still, there are various reasons for workers moving on to participate, they agree. For one, it can make the employee look professional, agree both Pringle and Cotton, and leave a good final impression. And, adds Cotton, “it’s nice to be nice”. 

Part of that ‘niceness’ extends to creating a better environment for the people remaining at the company. Ben Branson-Gateley, CEO and co-founder of CharlieHR, a London-based HR software company, believes it’s important to do the good deed for the remaining employees, since it’ll be “useful and helpful” for them. 

This can be particularly true in highly problematic work cultures, where issues like harassment or sexism may continue to affect colleagues well after one worker leaves. These kinds of red-flag issues are important to bring up so the company can look into and take action on them, says Pringle. 

“It may well be that other team members are experiencing the same,” adds Cotton. “And your [interview] experience … may not benefit you. It will benefit the company. And it will benefit the colleagues who are around you.” 

Plus, says Branson-Gateley, exit interviews are a particular good forum to help colleagues, since exiting employees are generally in situations where “there is no longer any fear that our honest conversation and honest opinion is going to cause some adverse reaction”. Calling out things like staff issues, workflow inefficiencies and cultural problems can give employers “meaningful data”, agrees Pringle – especially if an HR person is well trained and knows how to properly peel back the layers of unsavoury feedback, and eventually pass it on to managers to make meaningful change. 

“For many businesses, these are the only moments where those honest conversations do happen,” says Branson-Gateley. 

…and a good time be ‘selfish’ – and strategic 

Although agreeing to an exit interview may be a selfless act, Branson-Gateley says it’s also a good time for workers to be “selfish”. Instead of deciding if they’re going to lie, be forthcoming or land somewhere in between, it may be more prudent for workers to consider what they personally want from the process – and what approach to use to get it.

You should think hard about what you want from an exit interview before deciding how much to open up, experts say (Credit: Getty)

You should think hard about what you want from an exit interview before deciding how much to open up, experts say (Credit: Getty)

For instance, is the purpose of doing the exit interview to be ‘nice’ to the company as a thank you? Is it staying in the firm’s good graces for a potentially more senior role in the future? Is it helping those friends still working there? Is it to get out of the experience with minimal damage? 

For many, the simplest path may be to say very little, or be generally kind in the exit interview, then grab their things and wave good-bye as the lift doors close. And, “if it was obvious that this just wasn't a good fit on both sides,” advises Cotton, “then I would keep it short and sweet and hold your tongue”. 

But if the worker’s primary goal for an exit interview is a little bit of release, then saying nothing or being genial may not be in their best interests. 

In bad situations, “I think there is a cathartic, therapeutic element to it – a sort of like a healing process”, says Branson-Gateley. For example, “when you finally have a conversation with someone that you haven't been able to have for a long time, you feel a lot better after it”. 

Using the exit interview as an effective release, however, relies on the company’s culture. If toxic culture has pushed out a worker, it may be more likely a company won’t actually act on the feedback from an exit interview, says Pringle. The process could, instead, be perfunctory; feedback from a worker may make no difference, no matter how much they might hope it would. 

There’s also the problematic possibility that feedback employers don’t like – however warranted – could come back to bite a worker down the line. Cotton says, “Quite often, people are staying within the same industries, and while you may have criticisms of the place that you worked, it's really not going to help you get any further if you leave in a blaze of glory.”

If you have a grenade to throw, it's important do it in the right way – Jill Cotton

But what if workers do want to leave in that dramatic way, pulling the pin from the proverbial grenade? It’s not necessarily a universally bad idea – if they consider some specific elements. 

“I think if you have a grenade to throw, it's important do it in the right way,” says Cotton. “I would really recommend to any employee who’s going to do that to actually prepare in advance because emotions can just really overtake you in these sorts of situations. And if you have had a negative experience within the workplace, it's important that the company you’re leaving is aware of that.”

Whether throwing the grenade or having a quick, polite chat, Cotton stresses how important it is to prepare for an exit interview – to have a sense of the script beforehand. “Be clear about what it is that you want to say – make sure your bases are covered … so you know exactly what it is that you do and don’t want to say to an employer.”

‘If you have nothing nice to say…’ 

There is another option, too: declining an exit interview entirely. That old adage ‘if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all’ may never be more applicable. Perhaps it’s more comfortable to strategically omit information; perhaps HR’s questions may stir up some unwelcome reactions and emotions. 

“If there are difficult circumstances, if there’s been politics at play, there has been difficult emotions at play… those exit interviews can be pretty emotionally charged,” says Branson-Gateley. “If you’re in a situation where you're like, this is just going be too traumatising to even open some of these questions up”, just opt out, he suggests. After all, workers are already on their way out – and it’s not as if HR will barricade the door without a formal chat. 

And although deciding not to tell a company what you really think might feel like a squandered opportunity, Branson-Gately adds focusing on vengeance can be “a distraction from you playing your game. And I think ultimately you are always, always going to be so much more successful if you just focus on doing the things that you’re trying to do”. 

If an outgoing worker mustvent that frustration somehow, though, there are platforms after the exit interview where they can go – and go anonymously, such as Glassdoor, where current and former employees can add whatever feedback they want. Still as tempting as it may be to unload in a way that likely won’t be traced back to you, Glassdoor’s Cotton recommends keeping the bad stuff to yourself, regardless. 

The good news, says Branson-Gateley, is that needing to choose an exit-interview approach could become less and less important. Amid the twin impacts of the pandemic and the Great Resignation, companies are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of retaining a happy, productive workforce – and the role open dialogue can play in that. It’s true there is a still a group of people running organisations that “are only interested in the truth that conforms to their worldview”, he says, “but I think those organisations are dying out.”

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