Q. You’ve resigned from your job, and the human resources department has requested an exit interview. How do you make sure that your last impression is a good one?
A. Much like an initial job interview, the exit interview requires employees to act with dignity, said Maggie Craddock, president of Workplace Relationships, an executive coaching firm in New York City. “As tempting as it might be to blow it off, the exit interview is not a time to go in and say, ‘I’m out of here,’ ” Ms. Craddock said. “How you leave often is what sticks with people about you after you’ve gone, so it’s critical to handle the exit interview professionally.”
Q. What purpose do exit interviews serve?
A. They aren’t mandatory, but it’s generally a good idea to participate if asked. For employees, the meetings can provide closure for their tenure at a company. For employers, they can help unearth facts about the workplace environment. Beth Carvin, chief executive of Nobscot, a human resources software company in Honolulu, says the best companies use this information to improve the workplace for those who remain. If employees are forthright in exit interviews, she said, “what they say can and will have bearing on what happens at that company down the road.”
Q. What questions will be asked?
A. There’s no formula, but three main topics typically will be covered: on-the-job responsibilities, company benefits – including salary – and manager communication. Most of the questions are open-ended. Kristin Byron, assistant professor of management at the Rochester Institute of Technology, says that some interviewers will directly ask employees why they are leaving.
Q. How do you prepare for the session?
A. The more specifics you can provide, the better. Ms. Byron suggests spending a few hours reflecting before the meeting, so you don’t fumble when the pressure is on. This will help you remember both highs and lows, she said, and will help contextualize situations so you can give accurate impressions of your experience. “When people aren’t prepared, they go in feeling uncomfortable and they say things they might regret,” she said. “Whatever you do, make sure that the information you’re giving your exit interviewer is organized and clear so that nobody gets the wrong idea.”
Q. Should you be wary of being too honest?
A. Honesty is best, but try to avoid too much negativity. Bernadette Kenny, executive vice president at Lee Hecht Harrison, a human resources consulting firm in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., said employees should focus on the positive side of their work at the company and speak constructively about opportunities that their new jobs will offer. “As with many things in business, it’s not necessarily what you say, but instead how you say it,” Ms. Kenny said. “The last thing you want to do is go out griping. Besides, most human resources professionals are trained to read between the lines.” There is another reason to stay positive: you never know when you may encounter your exit interviewer again. Jim Atkinson, regional vice president at Right Management Consultants in Cleveland, learned this 11 years ago when he left a career in banking for his current job. In the old position, Mr. Atkinson moved eight times in 14 years, and he was fed up with the prospect of having to relocate again. Instead of expressing frustration in the exit interview, however, Mr. Atkinson mentioned his desire to settle down and hailed the new job for permitting him to do so. A year later, one of the executives who handled Mr. Atkinson’s interview came to work for him. “The exit interview is not the time to burn bridges,” Mr. Atkinson said. “Most industries are small, and bad behavior is not something you want people remembering about you.”
Q. Can you decline to answer certain questions in an exit interview?
A. Certainly, but keeping quiet on particularly sensitive subjects like your manager’s communication skills might make it seem that you have something to hide. As an alternative, said Lawler Kang, president of LK Ventures, a management consulting firm in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass., employees should work around uncomfortable inquiries by focusing on something less volatile. “Redirecting questions that could activate land mines is always a safe bet,” said Mr. Kang, author of “Passion at Work: How to Find Work You Love and Live the Time of Your Life” (Prentice Hall, 2005). “If you have to rate an area as one for improvement, do so vis-à-vis other strong positive traits.”
Q. Is it safe to assume that your interview will remain confidential?
A. The interview may seem like a private meeting, but it’s not. Most information or opinions you volunteer can be quoted and distributed around the company. Robin Bond, president at Transition Strategies, an employment law firm in Wayne, Pa., says that in most cases, human resources employees have no legal obligation to keep your comments under wraps. A notable exception is a discussion of a claim of sexual harassment or discrimination, which must remain confidential until investigated thoroughly. Even under such circumstances, Ms. Bond said, the human resources representative is likely to take copious notes. “When you talk to human resources, everything is on the record,” Ms. Bond said. “Just because you’re leaving the company doesn’t mean your words won’t live there for years to come.”