I was having a discussion with a few friends the other day over a game of poker. One of them told me that he was leaving his current company, and he asked us how honest he should be in his exit interviews.
One by one, each of my friends answered “Just be general”, “The advantage is all one-sided; don’t tell them anything”, and so on. It was unanimous — until my answer.
Be honest and be specific, I said. Let me explain why.
But first, let’s talk about the downside.
What Do You Have to Lose?
Everything. This is your career, so you have everything to lose. I won’t sugarcoat it — saying nothing is the safe bet. But I’m not one to play it safe.
People talk. If you are transferring within the same industry, you should assume that someone at your new company knows someone at your old company. Maybe they, too, will be talking over a poker game someday. Maybe one of them will mention this idiot who just pulled a rage quit and made a fool of himself in the exit interview. You don’t want that idiot to be you.
On the other hand, what if you are going to a brand new industry in a brand new country filled with brand new people? You still don’t know what your future will bring. You also don’t know what career path your former manager (or whoever else you have your exit interviews with) will have. You might intersect once again.
Only fools burn bridges that don’t need to be burnt.
Your career is built on networks. Your networks are made of people. The biped on the other side of that exit interview? That’s one of those people. So are the other bipeds that biped talks to.
Sounds like an open and shut case.
Wasn’t I on the Side of Honesty?
With that much to lose, why would you ever choose honesty? In the best-case scenario, the company introduces changes to undo every negative you point out — but they don’t happen until after you are gone.
When it comes to exit interviews, you are taking on all of the risk in hopes that someone else will get the reward.
That sounds like a deal that no one should ever take, right?
Okay, let’s finally get around to the upside of honesty, starting with the most obvious.
Co-workers Are People, Too
For the moment, let’s assume that there is no way that honesty in an exit interview can benefit you personally. So what? Your co-workers still deserve better.
An exit interview gives you a unique chance to state concerns that you either could not or would not say before — concerns that your coworkers likely feel similarly powerless to voice.
Even if it’s a point that you’ve made a thousand times, the exit interview is different and your ideas will resonate differently. Companies don’t like turnover. You are offering them ideas on how to retain people like you in the future. Thoughts that fell on deaf ears in the past may well find their way into company action via the exit interview.
But What’s In It for You?
The honesty you display in your exit interview is not all about altruism. Boomerangs — employees that leave a company only to end up coming back — do happen. Nobody expects to boomerang. But if it does happen, it’s better to land at a company that has been improved by your exit interview advice.
Okay, but that is unlikely. Let’s talk about something a bit more practical: networking.
How do you want the person on the other side of that desk to remember you If you are like me, you want to be remembered as an insightful, informed, engaged individual.
Immediately after I mentioned this point, one of my friends pushed back on it with this rebuttal: “No 30-minute meeting will matter more than the 2 years that they’ve already known you.”
They aren’t wrong, but they aren’t entirely right either. No one will completely change their opinion of you in a 30-minute meeting. Well, at least not in a positive way.
But here’s the thing. Your two best chances to leave a good impression on someone are the first time you meet and the last. These are typically the two strongest memories people have of you.
Your exit interview will often be the last, and perhaps strongest, memory someone has of you. Don’t let them remember you as that timid individual that lacked either good ideas or the guts to say them.
This isn’t about making a new name for yourself. It isn’t about trying to undo years of incompetency. I’m assuming here that you’ve already shown yourself to be a good employee — this is your chance to be remembered as a great one.
Think of the best speeches you’ve ever heard or the best concerts you’ve ever been to. I’m not talking about the good ones — just the great ones. I’d bed that it was the closing that clinched it. It was the way that the speaker hit that one last inspiring applause line. It was that third encore that ended on just the right note.
That is what you are going for in your exit interview.
How Do I Make That Happen?
Great question. First, here’s what not to do.
- Don’t come to the meeting unprepared.
- Don’t try to throw anyone under the bus.
- Don’t complain just for the sake of complaining.
- Don’t get angry.
Instead, put together a list of the most important things that you would like to see changed. Include any attempts you made to institute these changes during your tenure at the company. Suggest other steps that you believe the company could take.
In short: turn your complaints into action items.
Be prepared to explain the benefits that you believe each of these changes will bring. As with anything at your company, try to tie it back to cold hard cash if you can.
If you have heard the same complaints from others, say so, but do not mention names. I don’t think I have ever had a reason to mention a specific person during an exit interview. You may be prodded for names. Don’t give in.
As with any feedback session, don’t focus only on the negative. You may find that your positive comments actually have more of an impact than your negative ones. Change is always harder than constancy, and sometimes it’s just as important to let a company know what they shouldn’t change as it is to inform them of what they should change.
Is this really brutal honesty? Probably not. It may well be that my friends would agree with most of what I’ve put here. I’m not, after all, suggesting that you treat the exit interview as one last chance to air all your dirty laundry. Use tact and be tactical.
If used right, the exit interview can offer advantages to your co-workers and yourself. It can also be a positive for the company as a whole, and — even if you are leaving on negative terms — I assume you still want the company to improve.
If nothing else, exit interviews are a great chance to practice your feedback skills. Why waste that opportunity by saying nothing?