What Really Happens In An Exit Interview

Photographed by Nicolas Bloise.

Before you blow the popsicle stand that is your soon-to-be ex job, someone from human resources may call you in for an exit interview, a post-mortem meeting in which you have one last opportunity to speak your mind before you leave. Sort of.

"You plan for the interview, but often you don't plan for the exit," says Angela Santone, the executive vice president and global chief human resources officer for Turner. "You should always try to be as prepared as possible, so you're not going in cold, especially if you're having a one-on-one conversation."

Enumerating the reasons you're leaving a company can be awkward, even under the best of circumstances. So if you're disgruntled in any way, the temptation to take down everyone on your hit list à la Arya Stark can be delicious. But before you break out your "Needle" or throw any bows, think carefully about what you really want your employer's last impression of you to be.

"Some people look at these, I think, almost like a confessional," Santone says. "People leave because they want to do something different, or they are getting more money, or they're getting promoted. It's not always salacious, but it is up to that individual to think strategically about any ripples that may happen as a result of their exit interview. You can't go in there and think this isn't going to be a documented conversation that no one's ever going to look at again."

At most workplaces, exit interviews are an IRL affair with an HR or hiring manager from the company itself. Turner, however, uses a third-party vendor to ask employees questions about their reasons and experiences, to ensure greater anonymity. Santone says this can help managers see if something was wrong that others were unaware of, or if people shared their concerns but no one listened. Maybe people are leaving for a better opportunity, or maybe there's a pay issue?

Don't assume you're speaking your truth into an uncaring, bureaucratic abyss.

"We really just want to understand, collectively, if there are systemic issues or challenges; then we can address them," Santone explains.

So think through what you want to share, why you want to share it, and the possible impact of sharing — in advance. Do you want to get something off your chest? Are you hoping the organization will improve some aspect of its culture or processes? And how likely is it that it will actually take steps to do so? Santone challenges those undergoing an exit interview to think about what they could say or do to leave their organization in a better place, or potentially help their colleagues still at the company. Don't assume you're speaking your truth into an uncaring, bureaucratic abyss; some companies do want to get better — and reviewing exit interviews for reasons behind attrition can help them do so.

Still, it's totally understandable if you have no desire to be a crusader, says Mark Gasche, a career management leader at the loan-refinancing company SoFi.

"If you can be assured it’s confidential, meaning there’s a third party doing it and they tell you or have you sign something saying that your comments will not be attached to your name, then you can feel a little bit of comfort. But your comments could be easily identified as yours when people look at it," he notes.

In other words, if you blast Ronald McDonald as the worst manager who has ever lived, and you were his only recent report, tracing that comment back to you could be a no-brainer. That's not a "bad" thing per se; you are allowed to burn whatever bridges you like. Just know that the trail of lighter fluid may clearly lead right back to you.

You are allowed to burn whatever bridges you like. Just know that the trail of lighter fluid may clearly lead right back to you.

"If your overriding principle is leaving 'well,' you put yourself at risk if you’re honest," Gasche admits. "People think, Well, I should tell the organization all the things they can do to change, but you don’t work there anymore. There's an inclination to want to help change a place you didn't find satisfying — and it gives voice to employees. But if the comments are conveyed in a way that hurts your reputation, that is a bigger deal."

For example, 12 exit-interview comments that note a company advertises work-life balance but doesn't actually give it can help HR detect a pattern they may work to amend. But one easily-identifiable comment about the same thing could come across as sour grapes. So make sure that you're comfortable with that risk — and that your reasons for being honest aren't being fed by cheese and whine. If your instinct is to rant and rave, you might be the person who failed to provide clarity about any experiences and expectations.

"If you have tons to spill in your exit interview, what does it say about you that you didn't ask for what you wanted, or make your point of view known before?" Gasche asks. "You can get into a cycle where you stay a year, have 80 gripes, and then you leave. Then you get to a new employer where you have 100 more gripes, but you don’t express them or try to change your situation."

Gasche urges you to think about the impact saving up your frustrations until the end could have on your personal happiness — or your chances of having an authentic relationship with your employer.

"People will make adjustments around you if you really have a concern about something," he says. "Or, maybe they won’t — but at least you know you tried."