Teresa Marzolph, Founder of Culture Engineered
Is honesty the best policy when it comes to giving an exit interview?
You’ve informed your company that you are leaving, and they’ve invited you to participate in an exit interview to understand why you are leaving and how they can be a better employer. But how honest is too honest? Having conducted hundreds, if not thousands of exit interviews in my HR career, here are some tips to consider before heading into your exit interview meeting so as not to jeopardize your career.
Has there been a recent change to leadership within the company or, have they announced an upcoming change? A change in leadership suggests a recognized need for change in the company. It is quite common for new incoming leaders to first assess where improvement is needed. A great resource for such information is exit interview data. So, if you are leaving shortly following a change in company leadership, the timing of your feedback may be even more valuable than usual. Touch on both good and bad parts of your employment experience with the company in your exit interview, giving ideas to what would’ve made your employment with the company even better. It’s a great time to speak openly as there is little to lose in doing so. You have already chosen to leave the company, but chances are, you still care quite a bit about your coworkers you are leaving behind and potentially even the company itself! Your goal in this scenario is a bit more selfless….to make it a better workplace and company, for everyone else.
Are you working in an industry that is more about “who you know” versus “what you know”? Then, perhaps rethink your dreams of an honest, open, direct exit interview as it’s likely going to impact you more than it does the company. It’s not right, and it will ultimately hinder a company’s ability to get better, but cliquey industries are fueled by gossip. Most of us can count on former employers to be professional when contacted as a reference. There are however other companies that prefer to operate less on the up-and-up, sadly believing “off the record” hearsay to be more effective. Know which type of company and industry you are in before speaking too candidly in your exit interview. You might choose to still be open and honest which is admirable, but your decision should be an informed one in which options are carefully assessed and weighed. The road to honesty in these industries can be difficult, ruthless, and lonely, and therefore not for the faint of heart.
Unfortunately, we aren’t all leaving a good company simply because we found an even better opportunity. Some of us are leaving an unpleasant, toxic, or even unethical environment because we simply couldn’t take it anymore. If you are considering taking legal action against your soon-to-be former company, you may wish to hold off on that exit interview, or at least consult with an attorney before doing so. While a good company will use exit interview feedback to improve the efficiency and integrity of the work environment, this cannot be said for all employers. Some companies instead choose to use exit interview feedback as a way to defend against or even diffuse legal allegations. For example, perhaps you feel your manager is harassing you at work. Despite reporting to HR and upper management, your manager continues to harass you. You realize the only way to put an end to the harassment is to find a new job. In doing so, you happen to find a higher paying job. A company choosing to Band-Aid internal issues rather than investigate and resolve them might falsely attribute your departure to the new job’s increased salary (neglecting to mention the fact that your primary goal was to escape your manager’s harassing behavior). So, if you are planning on taking legal action, plan ahead by consulting with a legal professional.
French novelist, Gustave Flaubert said “There is no truth. There is only perception.” The same can be said for exit interviews as they are focused on a person’s perception. During your employment, did the company actively solicit employee feedback? Were they open and responsive to opinions? A company’s approach to exit interview feedback will likely be the same approach to any other employee feedback received. If they were not asking about your satisfaction or employee engagement before through the use of employee surveys or focus groups, why are they interested in feedback now that you’re leaving? Businesses actively keeping a pulse on employee morale are more likely to act on exit interview data in an effort to be a better employer. If your company fails to value employee perceptions and opinions, an exit interview may be a waste of your breath.
Who has access to exit interview feedback and how is the data used? Two of the least asked but most important questions every person should ask before participating in an exit interview. In most companies, HR conducts exit interviews. But, where it goes from there varies by company. Does it remain anonymous? How is it shared with management? A good HR person will share these details with you before getting too far into your exit interview. A GREAT HR person will ultimately give you the honest answer – your anonymity although important, is not the priority. Because most companies use exit interview data to improve, there is some level of sharing information with leadership. For example, if you share legal or ethical issues in an exit interview, HR is responsible for investigating such claims and it’s fair to assume your anonymity will be lost in the process. Or perhaps you share in your exit interview that your manager’s communication style is harsh, and your coworker is always gossiping about other employees. In an effort to “coach” the manager or coworker, it’s fair to assume your feedback will be shared with them although your name will not. Sometimes the feedback alone is enough for a person to surmise your identity. Putting yourself in the company’s position for a moment, understand your primary objective is to make the company better. So, if you receive negative feedback about the company that can be addressed easily, wouldn’t you want to correct it? What if “correcting” it meant giving away details on how you received the feedback? Hence, the conflict. So, ask before you talk allowing you the opportunity to consider all parties privy to your exit interview details.
Ultimately, use your judgment to decide the value the company places on exit interview data. Is the company genuinely interested in your employment experience, going through the motions, or is using it to defend a toxic culture? You should never consider giving a dishonest exit interview as it benefits no one. You may however choose to instead give less detail or censor yourself a bit, minimizing potential negative repercussions. If you doubt the integrity of the person or company conducting your exit interview, consider not participating at all. Honesty should always be your policy, but it may not be theirs.