The Exit Interview

The upside of leaving – how to win the exit interview

For most corporate employees, whether you are off to a great new opportunity, have been given a package or are retiring, the last stop on your way out the door is likely to be the “exit interview.”

According to the experts, this last interview is as important to your career and reputation as making a good first impression.

Among employees, the exit interview is often a controversial meeting – you and your disgruntled co-workers may want you to stick it to the company; or, you may think there’s no upside to honesty and therefore plan to pass the time with platitudes and lip service. You’re leaving the company anyway and the upside is all theirs.

But there is much to be gained and not a lot to lose if you can take the exit interview as seriously as you might an interview for a job you really want.

“It’s the last chance you have to make a good impression, and being professional and helpful will enhance your reputation, even if you are a disgruntled employee,” says Lyman MacInnis, an executive coach, motivational speaker and author of How to Succeed in Anything by Really Trying. “From the company perspective, it is the last chance to treat someone with dignity – someone who can then be a goodwill ambassador for the company in the best case scenario, or at the very least leave it a little less disgruntled and negative.”

MacInnes, who has spent more than three decades at the senior management level and has acted as a strategist and facilitator for Fortune 500 companies, says an employer will learn a great deal about how to retain great staff and may gain insight into how to alter the corporate culture for the better if the exit interview is handled wisely.

Not every interview will result in nuggets of insight however. “You will often get someone who will tell you what they think you want to hear, or you have the acid throwers who want to do as much damage as possible,” says MacInnes. “The example I use is, in the oil business you might have to drill 50 holes before you hit the gusher. Handled well, you will discover trends, you may learn about people under your radar who are doing good work, you may find unknown strengths and weaknesses.”

Fine, but what’s in it for the employee?

As MacInnes likes to say, it’s never too late to make a good first impression. “You might be considered a disgruntled acid-thrower, but you can use this opportunity to position yourself and enhance your reputation as an agent of change.”

As for the platitude-pusher, “there is always an upside to being honest, and again, being forthright will enhance your reputation. Most people who conduct these interviews are highly skilled at it, and likely know more about the company than you do. Therefore if you are being dishonest in the form of platitudes, they’ll know. Your credibility is lost.”

Career coach Gene Hayden, author of The Follow-Through Factor, points out that the relationship to work is like any other in life, and the exit interview offers the opportunity to find a much needed sense of closure when that relationship ends.

“Exit interviews have been around as long as human resources departments, and I think it is a very human thing to want to review the relationship at the end,” says Hayden. “We seek an understanding of what went on, and this is on both sides.” The flaw in the plan, though, is that the situation often includes some defensiveness – the interviewer may feel a loyalty to the company and want to avoid hearing about leaving for greener pastures; the interviewee might feel the place didn’t appreciate him or her nearly enough.

“People don’t lose their preconceptions when they walk into the interview,” said Hayden. “Often the discussion can turn into blame. This helps no one – try instead to keep it objective and to turn the discussion into lessons learned, not a litany of complaints or a bunch of generalizations.”

She adds that the exit interview gives an employee a chance to have the last word. “Closure is satisfying, and it somehow allows you to complete the circle. As good as it might be to complain, you want to walk out feeling really good about how you behaved. You want to leave knowing you were worth listening to – and in its way, even if you felt like venting, this is the best revenge.”

How much information to offer and what kind of information to give can be a bit of a balancing act. The experts suggest keeping a few things in mind:

– Have a plan. Know what you want to say and know how you are going to say it. Remember, this is a chance to further enhance or rebuild your reputation. Shoulders back, sit straight, and talk in specifics. “No whining or preaching, no scowling, smile if you can,” says MacInnes. “Be specific, make points illustrated with names, times, places, what happened and why you think it did.”

– Resist the urge to vent. “I don’t believe in “confidential”,” says Hayden. “Identify what you want to get out of the experience, and think about what will help you professionally. You’re there to talk about big themes, not to trash someone.” Be gracious. You are giving some insights as an expert. “You want to leave the room feeling good about yourself.” – If you do vent, vent smart. “It’s not easy to do, and it’s a small world – word does get back. Frame your comments positively – don’t say your former boss was a micromanaging control freak, position it more along the lines of suggesting that not everyone has the confidence to be able to let people fail and learn from their mistakes.”

– Stick closely to a discussion of lessons learned, be solution-oriented. “If you are simply criticizing, that won’t be effective or actionable, there’s not much the company can do with that and the downside is you might look less professional,” says Hayden. – Use the opportunity to learn more about yourself as an employee and a professional – What can you improve on? What are your strengths and weaknesses?

– Even if there were a lot of issues in the past, show that you are willing to share valuable insight based on your experience. Your mantra: this is your last chance to make a good impression, and as MacInnes says, “never pass up the chance to make a good impression.”