After putting in your two weeks’ notice, there’s a good chance HR will ask you to participate in an exit interview — and there’s an even better chance you’ll be torn about how open you should be during that conversation.
Michael Kerr, an international business speaker and author of “You Can’t Be Serious! Putting Humour to Work,” says some employees believe the exit interview is the ideal opportunity to be completely honest about their experiences with their employer, while others think that being candid puts them at risk of burning bridges.
But, he says, neither group is necessarily right. “It’s not a black-and-white issue,” Kerr explains. “You shouldn’t think about the exit interview in terms of, ‘Should I be honest?’ or ‘Should I not be honest?’ Instead, you should think about how truthful you want to be, and when it’s ok to withhold details.”
Generally speaking, Kerr says you should be as honest as you can without divulging confidential information or impugning someone’s reputation.
“There’s a fairly common perception that employees shouldn’t cooperate or open up during exit interviews, or worse, that they should lie,” he says. “I don’t agree. I think in most situations you should strive for honesty, and it comes down to a personal choice of integrity and ethics.
“Even if you are leaving under difficult circumstances,” Kerr continues, “take the perspective that the organisation needs you to be honest, otherwise the entire process is a waste of time. And you need to be honest to feel as though you’ve had some closure — so you know you can leave feeling like you’ve said what needed to be said. Otherwise you risk toting along some extra carry-on baggage to your next job.”
But he says there’s a world of difference between being honest and being disrespectful or rude. “If you catch yourself ever saying, ‘Can I be completely blunt here?’ be very cautious about how you proceed. Often, this phrase is code for taking off the gloves or wanting to say something that might cause offence.”
Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and the author of “Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behaviour and Thrive in Your Job,” agrees with Kerr. She says the best approach during an exit interview is to “keep it short, polite, positive, and general — and that stands the best chance of your staying honest, while not jeopardizing your career.”
Both experts say it’s ok to not be 100% honest in some situations.
“For instance, you should never divulge private conversations you’ve had with colleagues or break a confidence, even if HR asks you to,” Kerr says.
Another situation in which you shouldn’t be completely honest: if you had personal issues with any coworkers or managers.
“Naming specific people or pointing the finger at certain managers can come back to bite you,” Kerr says. “A more tactful, yet still helpful approach is to focus on constructive ideas centered around the company’s culture and offer positive suggestions.”
For example, rather than complaining that “Bob was a real micromanager tyrant,” instead suggest that the company needs to work on building a culture where employees are given more freedom and autonomy, and why you feel that’s important.
If you faced issues with your manager — you weren’t given enough responsibility or compensation, you were not recognised or credited for your achievements, or you found your boss to be intolerable — “you must ask yourself what you have to gain by stating any of these grievances,” Taylor says.
If you’re strategic about your career, she suggests asking yourself: How can I now minimize my losses, and make the best of my departure? Can I say anything truthful that reinforces the positive, which might ultimately be of benefit?
So, how can you be honest without burning bridges?
“Deliver any constructive criticism by emphasising what you did like at the company,” Taylor suggests. “The rest can be left to inference without outright implicating yourself. So you don’t need to blurt out, ‘I didn’t get a fair chance to do my best work.’ But you might say, ‘There are a lot of things I enjoyed about this job, such as when I led the xyz project. There were great results, and I was given a lot of latitude and support all around, which I greatly appreciated.'”
You are, in effect, telling the employer what works by highlighting the experiences that you liked best. In this example, they will get the fact that the opposite management style does not allow the staff to thrive. “The difference is diplomacy; and it will take you far no matter where you are on your career timeline,” says Taylor.
As a guide, always envision your parting comments written as text, publicly available to the entire company. “Ask yourself if that’s how you want to be remembered, as it’s likely that your parting demeanor will remembered, in and out of the exit interview,” she says.
Don’t let your last hour destroy what you worked to build over weeks, months, or years. “Stay calm, true to yourself, and remain the ultimate office diplomat,” Taylor concludes.