How honest should you be during your exit interview?

By Allison Pohle, Bangkok Post, Thailand (TNS)

Millions of people have quit their jobs this year, and many more are expected to do so.

The wave of layoffs has presented a dilemma for workers preparing to exit – namely how honest they should be with their prospective employers about why they are leaving, where they are going and what is happening within the organization.

In interviews with more than a dozen workers who recently left their jobs, some said their former employers seemed keenly aware of the issue of burnout and how they can be better bosses. Some said their exit interviews seemed perfunctory, as if HR was going over the moves.

While it may be satisfying to air work-related grievances, exit interviews are not meant to be vented, says Jane Oates, president of WorkingNation, a nonprofit focused on the challenges facing U.S. workers.

“A company that genuinely wants to learn and grow and be a better place to work will make this interview as comfortable as possible for you so that you have full confidence that there will be no retaliation,” she says. An employer also documents what is said, so it’s important to think carefully about what you want on your record and deal with criticism as constructively as possible, she adds.

“You can be as honest as you like, but you have to be professional,” says Ms. Oates.

Several recent dropouts said they typed bullet points about their experiences to consult during their exit interviews because they were determined to sound the alarm to their future bosses about what they perceived as a toxic work culture.

A sales rep at an internet marketing company in Chicago says she spoke out about everything from a lack of paid time off to a lack of emotion in the company’s internal memos about Black Lives Matter. This employee says she doesn’t expect any changes but appreciates the opportunity to get everything off her chest.

A financial compliance expert in New York City said she has been open about poor communication during the pandemic regarding her employer’s return-to-office plan, as well as the guidelines for employees who have tested positive for Covid-19. She says she felt compelled to speak honestly because she had colleagues who were hospitalized with Covid-19 and when they returned home they had to find out if they still had jobs waiting for them.

A sales manager at a Nashville retail store says he loved his job but was dismayed that his colleagues in the store were not wearing masks consistently and that his company forbade employees from asking each other about their vaccination status. In an exit interview, he said he wanted to work for a company that stood by its values. So far, he says, he has received no reply to what he wrote.

Human resource experts say workers aren’t required to answer questions during an exit interview — like where they’ll work or how much they’ll make at a new job. Regardless of what is implied or even threatened, paychecks and benefits are governed by federal and state laws, and an employer can’t withhold your final paycheck if you don’t attend an exit interview, says Barbara Holland, a consultant with the Society for Human Resource Management.

A survey of more than 1,100 SHRM members conducted last month found that 43% of HR professionals said their organizations experienced higher or much higher turnover in the past six months, while another 43% said turnover in stayed about the same.

Sharing insights about a bad boss or an abusive work culture might seem fruitless to an employee walking out the door, but those observations can prove crucial when it comes to building a case for change, says Ms. Holland. When multiple employees are leaving for the same reason — or because of the same person — but only one is talking about it, it can make it harder for an HR department to advocate for change, she adds.

Trier Bryant, executive director of Just Work LLC, says it’s possible to be both respectful and direct when it’s necessary to speak about a negative situation or culture. You could frame your feedback to show that you care about the place you’re leaving, says Ms. Bryant, who worked for Twitter Inc. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. before co-founding Just Work, which helps organizations and individuals to create fairer jobs.

In her own career, Ms. Bryant says she has provided direct feedback at exit interviews, saying, “I share this because not only do I care about the company, but I care about my co-workers who I’m leaving.”

Most people change jobs several times during their working life. Even if an employee has complicated feelings about leaving a job or colleagues, Ms. Bryant says they could focus their exit interview on how their experience prepared them for their next role and emphasize the positive so as not to break a bridge.

“It’s okay for you to be in a company, do a great job, and then when you’ve contributed and done your part, move on,” she says.


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