How to handle an exit interview

It’s tempting, isn’t it? It’s your last week at the job you’re leaving, you’ve had a couple of issues during your time there, there’s that one colleague who operates in a way you find counterproductive, and then someone sits you down and asks, “What changes would you make to the organisation if you were in charge?” You lean forward and begin your rant.

Of course it’s tempting. But here’s the thing: don’t do it. An exit interview can be helpful both to you and the company you’re leaving, for many reasons, but it’s useless if all you’re doing is letting off steam. You can do that later, amongst friends. Or earlier – we’ll come to that in a bit.

First of all, if you burn bridges now, you’ll never be able to work with those people in the same way again, if at all. While that might not seem like it matters now that you (hopefully) have a shiny new job to go to, you can never tell when you’ll stumble across people in the future, especially now that workers are changing jobs and companies with more regularity than they used to.

Second, your opinions can genuinely help the organisation to reconsider their practices. Even if they didn’t listen when you tried to give them as an employee, an exit interview should go on the record, and a dedicated conversation may persuade your line manager to consider your ideas more thoroughly. This could end up helping a lot of people, including your soon-to-be-former colleagues.

So it’s important to think in advance about what you might say, and the best way to say it. Ideally you want to come across as someone who takes their questions seriously, who can give evidence-backed responses, and who – if you do harbour any – can ignore resentment for the purpose of a productive discussion.

What might I be asked?

Exit interviews vary in terms of how seriously they’re taken by the company, and their structure. It could be anything from an informal five minute chat, if you’re at a smaller, looser organisation, or a structured interview with documentation and an HR representative if you’re at the more corporate end of the spectrum. Nevertheless, they usually comprise similar types of questions. Here are a few to think about:

Why are you leaving your job? If there are several reasons, list them out. If just one, state it simply. The start of the interview isn’t the place to air grievances; if they care, they’ll have a separate question for things like that. It’s also helpful for companies to know if you’re leaving because of better salary or benefits elsewhere, as it can assist them to place themselves better within the market.

What were the best and worst parts of working here? Here is where you can let loose a little with the parts of the job you were unhappy with, but make sure you do it in a productive way. If you vent to a friend who can talk you through it beforehand, it might pave the way for concentrating on the facts without being clouded by anger – you can distil your feelings into useable information. For example, instead of talking at length about how incompetent your manager made you feel and how upset and anxious you were whenever they were around, you could briefly describe two or three situations in which they were unsupportive, the difference in your productivity, and one or two specific changes which would have helped. Make sure you’re giving feedback that could be translated into behavioural change, rather than focusing on your individual outcome. And don’t forget to tell them about the good parts! Reassurance that they’re doing some things right will ensure that they don’t let those factors disappear for your colleagues.

What could we have changed to help you do your job better? This could be related to the previous question, depending on your answer, but this is also a time you can talk about practicalities. Office access, resource availability, priority order, administrative burdens. Would you have bettered the competition if you’d had training in one particular skill? Would you be more productive if you’d been allowed to work in the afternoon and evening instead of the morning and afternoon? You don’t know what their capacity is to implement any changes, so you may as well approach it with a ‘dream job’ list.

There are many similar questions they might ask, but they all revolve around the same theme: what did you think of your job here? A final thing to remember is not to be nervous. You really do have the upper hand – they are asking you to reflect on your experience, but they’re also asking for advice. It’s not a job interview (although it helps if you prepare as if it were), and you won’t face repercussions if they disagree with you. Don’t get angry, treat everyone as if they’re doing their best, and try not to burn any bridges!

If you’re thinking about leaving your job, check out Stay Nimble to set up your skills profile, get qualified careers advice, see what roles are available locally, and begin your new career journey today.

Author: Katherine

Katherine is a qualified careers advisor and a member of the Career Development Institute. She has just begun a PhD programme to research meta-skill development in the workplace, and is a fiction editor and publisher in her spare time. You can find her on Twitter at @katobell.

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