Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
If you’ve ever left a job, you might have been asked to do an “exit interview” to talk about your experience, why you decided to leave, and whether there’s anything your employer could have done to keep you. And if you’re like most people, you might have wondered how your input would be used and worried that telling the unvarnished truth would burn a bridge.
Exit interviews are tricky. Companies often pitch them as a way for employees to improve the company for the colleagues they’re leaving behind, and sometimes employees are intrigued by the idea of having a chance to point out serious problems. But real candor can come at a high risk to departing employees—particularly when they’d be criticizing the same manager they’ll be depending on for references in the future.
This tends to leave people unsure of how to navigate exit interviews. This person wrote to me voicing a fear I hear over and over:
The good news is that I’m going to be giving notice at the beginning of next month, leaving a toxic, paranoia-inducing corporate culture. The bad news is that my exit interview will be with one of the people who have been key in making this formerly pleasant environment a miserable place to work in. This person is nasty and vindictive, and I’m worried that if I’m even the slightest bit honest about my reasons for leaving, I’ll get bad referrals. Worse still, this person fancies herself an amateur therapist, so I doubt she’ll have much regard for boundaries when she asks questions.
How do I give as little information as possible as to why I’m leaving? Honest answers wouldn’t improve the corporate culture or process anyway (management has repeatedly demonstrated a “if you don’t like it, get out” mindset). Are there any particular phrases I can use to exit gracefully and without incurring managerial wrath?
Many people handle this by just giving either utterly bland or falsely positive input:
I’m resigning as soon as I get a written offer for another position and formally accept. But I always dread exit interviews. I’m not going to say anything negative because I don’t want to risk hurting a future reference from my current managers, so I’m just going to be super positive and say how great everything is at my current job. There’s nothing horrible going on like harassment or anything that I would feel obligated to report, but there is plenty that needs to be addressed and those things certainly are the reason I’m leaving.
Some people even decline an exit interview altogether—which itself should be a flag to the employer that there might be a serious problem to dig into:
I refused to participate in an exit interview. The HR person tried to imply that I had an obligation to let them know what was going on so they could make things better for other people. I told her that they already knew there was a problem based on the turnover and on their own interactions with the CEO and they had enough information to do what they needed to do. I didn’t need a vindictive, spiteful, vicious CEO somehow ruining my career.
And companies do have sources of information other than exit interviews if they truly care to use them. In particular, employers that really want this type of feedback should be asking for it before people leave! One option is to do “stay interviews,” where management seeks input from people before they’re on their way out the door. They also can do anonymous surveys, 360 reviews, and skip-level meetings (where a manager meets with employees two levels down, which can be a way to learn about management problems that otherwise might not be easily uncovered). Most importantly, companies can invest heavily in good management, part of which is creating a work culture where people feel reasonably safe speaking up about concerns because they see people aren’t penalized for doing that—and because they see those concerns taken seriously and addressed.
In fact, if a company doesn’t have that kind of culture—if it hasn’t done the work to make people feel safe sharing candid input—exit interviews are likely to be largely unproductive anyway. Most people won’t take that risk if they’ve seen from experience that the company won’t handle their input well.
Companies also need to be more transparent about how exit interview feedback will be used and about how they’ll insulate people who give negative feedback from blowback from their managers. It’s not fair or realistic to expect people to risk their standing with the manager they’re critiquing without real assurance that they’ll be protected from repercussions. But that means a deep companywide commitment to hearing and learning from criticism that might be painful—and it’s often much easier to simply hand departing employees a pro forma exit questionnaire and call it done.