The Exit Interview

So, you've decided to leave. How to handle the exit interview, and why you shouldn't go too negative. Your career will thank you.

The Exit Interview
Photo by Stephen Radford on Unsplash

Having 7 stops on my journey in Product management over the last 20 years, I have had several “exit interviews.” This post is some sage advice that I have learned and absorbed over this series of experiences.

But what is an exit interview, and why do they have them at all? From the employer’s side, it makes perfect sense – in theory – to have a brief, friendly chat with the departing employee. To find out why they are leaving. Was there a specific deficiency in the role, or the organization. Was there anything the company could have done better to prevent them from leaving. Fairly innocuous fare, and most organizations do care about retention, and employee engagement. Believe it or not, it is far more expensive to replace an employee than to keep them happy and productive1. However, there are risks in the exit interview for the departing employee.

For many employees, this is the opportunity to “open up”, to “Be Honest”, and “Tell it Like it is”. But being hyper-critical might not be in your long-term interest. The temptation to flame your jerk-store boss may be great. Or perhaps the policy about never giving raises once an employee hits the midpoint of the range. Or the myth of the “job classification” and pay scales. Whatever irks you and causes you to leave. But apart from catharsis, what benefit is that?

If you use the exit interview to whinge incessantly, you will be classified as shrill, and somebody they will be better without. If you use the exit interview to rail on your boss's unfairness (favoritism, incompetence, et. al.), you will be classified as an antisocial, who can’t fit in.

The truth is, it is better to suck it up, be positive, focus on how you are going to a place that fits you better. Demur about your boss, the working environment, the senior leadership. Hide that dirty laundry, bury it, bury it deep.

The Product Management Angle: While formal work history queries are terse, the community is tightly knit, and odds are excellent that the “network” will provide the informal dirt, so don’t leave the dirt

Oh, but the HR person conducting the interview tells you to open up. To tell it how you see it? The truth is, regardless of what you say, and how you unload your trash, the company and its policies aren’t going to change. 1 person, 10 people, 100 people, all saying the same thing? Not one manager will be reprimanded.

You might be asking “Why shouldn’t I unload? My boss is a miserable excuse for a human being…” While that may be true, that isn’t really what the HR person across the table from you wants to know. They want to know why you are leaving, and how to not hire someone in the future that will have the same issues. Second, be the better person. It wasn’t a fit for you, but unless the company is flaming out, a lot of people will still be employed there, and need to keep getting a paycheck.

But but …

If you still want to rant and rave, there are anonymous outlets. Glassdoor is a great place to do research on a place you are considering, and an even better place to rant on. Anonymous, honest, and amazingly accurate reviews of companies (they got the “it can take 3 months to get a new laptop” at one of my former employers spot on. It did!)

You have already escaped the insanity. You weren’t fit for their mold. Move on, build the bridge instead of burn it, and look forward. One day, you will regale the young upstarts about how you had to walk uphill to work, both ways, in your bare feet. Hey, get off my lawn!

  1. It can cost to 6–9 months of salary to recruit a candidate. For an $80K position that can be $40k – $60K to recruit and train a replacement. (SHRM statistic)