Exit interviews can be strange things. For the employer, it’s an opportunity to find out why an employee is resigning. They want to understand what they can do differently as an employer to retain future talent. But, as a departing employee, there’s little incentive to speak honestly because your goal is to secure a good reference for future jobs.
Here’s a guide to navigating the tricky side of an exit interview. This article will tell you what an exit interview is, the questions you are likely to encounter, and how to answer them adeptly. We provide example questions and answers along with interview tips to help you prepare so that you don’t burn any bridges.
An exit interview is an attempt by a company to find out why an employee is leaving. The idea is to uncover any problems in management or corporate culture to improve employee turnover.
Exit interviews are usually conducted on an employee's last day through an online survey, in a face-to-face interview, over the phone, through video chat, or via email. They are often led by someone from human resources or a third party. Employees are under no obligation to engage in an exit interview.
Beware that some companies will pitch the exit interview as a way for the departing employee to improve the environment for those they are leaving behind. However, there is a risk attached to being candid for a departing employee. You could lose them as a reference if the conversation goes south, or you can find that you put your co-workers in a difficult situation if they ask for insight on colleagues.
If you are harboring resentment, it is wise to give significant thought to how you will answer the questions in an exit interview, or even skip it altogether.
See exit interviews as an opportunity to tell the employer what you liked about the company and your experience. There is no need in an exit interview to say anything negative. See the glass as half full, not half empty.
If you are leaving a job because you feel disgruntled with management or you feel like you were treated unfairly, it’s natural to want to voice your feelings. However, what will you gain in doing so?
There may be ethical considerations if the company’s safety procedures are putting others at risk, and you may want to bring that to the attention of human resources. However, the chances are they already know and are choosing to do nothing about it.
Companies with a healthy corporate culture seek input from their staff before they leave through 360-degree reviews, anonymous surveys, and other communication and feedback strategies. Frankly, the only thing that will result from your honesty in an exit interview is that you will be considered a whiner, perhaps not a good fit for the job, and you might win a poor reference from your employer in the future.
If you still want to air grievances, do so after you have obtained a written reference. There is a chance that a potential new employer who has a written reference will not reach out again to your old employer.
When you present your grievance in an exit interview, do so without emotion and without imposing your opinion. Simply state the facts and give specific examples. That way, you will be taken more seriously. Give suggestions for improvement if you can, there is always the chance that they may be introduced.
Be prepared, however, to be asked why you didn’t bring up these points before you decided to leave. That’s a valid question, and one that you should have a good response for.
Also, think of the consequences of what you are saying. You might be jumping ship, but your work colleagues are not. Don’t put them in an awkward position by spilling the beans and revealing information detrimental to them.
Here are some common questions you might be asked in an exit interview and suggestions on how to answer them.
It is safe to say here that you felt that you were not fully utilized or that you felt that you needed a new challenge. There is no need to point the finger at a bad boss or even insinuate that the company did not support your advancement if that was the case. However, it is your choice to do so! You could also say that you needed a higher salary, a better benefits package, or your move is due to personal reasons. No one can blame you for having any of these concerns, particularly if you had brought them to the attention of human resources or your boss.
Sample Answer: “I have learned a lot while working here, but I started to sense that I needed something different. I decided to try to expand my experience and strengthen my abilities.”
If the answer to this question is a higher salary, flexible work hours, remote work options, better benefits, greater work-life balance, it’s fine to say so. Your old employer is trying to gauge how competitive they are in the labor market. However, don’t try to be funny and say something critical like “good management.” That will obviously backfire!
Sample Answer: “My new position gives me the opportunity to be exposed to [XYZ], which this company cannot do. I feel that I can broaden my skills base and gain valuable knowledge and experience that will increase my value to an employer."
If your manager was not the greatest, it might be tempting to say something negative. Don’t. Companies are usually aware of bad managers, human resources probably already has a thick file of complaints, and your input will not make any difference. A good way to answer this question is to be honest if the relationship was good. If it was bad, lie, or say, “It was as good as could be expected.”
Sample Answer: “My manager and I had a good working relationship. I appreciated their leadership efforts considering the limited resources and time constraints.”
This is a valid question and one where your answer can actually make a difference. You were the one doing your job, so you know exactly what skills and experience your replacement should have. Perhaps your job description is now outdated. For example, your job might have required significant IT troubleshooting, but that is not mentioned in the job description. The fact that a job description is outdated or inaccurate is valuable feedback for human resources.
Sample Answer: “So, my job involved quite a bit of troubleshooting of new software. I don’t think the job description reflects that adequately. I would recommend that my replacement be aware of this and have experience troubleshooting first-hand from their past roles.”
You can answer this question without being negative. For example, the best aspects of your job could be that you enjoyed working with your teammates or that you were exposed to new technologies. The worst aspect of your job could be that it was often frustrating and difficult using the legacy IT systems. Just try not to be critical of the company or any of its employees.
If you choose to give constructive feedback, for example, there were unnecessarily long meetings or bureaucratic approval procedures, be prepared to justify your complaints. If there is follow-up, you may be asked for examples and suggestions for improvement.
Sample Answer: “I enjoyed working with my teammates. That was the best aspect of my job. The worst aspects were that some projects took a little longer than we hoped for one reason or another. Still, the client appreciated that we were detailed and thorough, so I was proud of the team.”
A good way to answer this question is to state that you understand the limitations of the company. For example, you might say that “I felt supported given the limitations of the company’s resources.” That way, you are not being critical of the company at all, and you are being honest. Most companies do not have the resources to provide cutting-edge technologies or expensive training.
Sample Answer: “I think future employees can benefit from more thorough and frequent training, but I understand that there are limited resources. Additional training would help existing and new employees to do their tasks to the best of their ability.”
So, this question is asking you to comment on your manager’s leadership skills. If you decide to say that you were not given clear goals and objectives, you might be asked to expand on why you think your leadership was poor. You could find yourself in a dangerous situation. Criticizing your boss with honest feedback could mean that they will not give you a positive review in the future to a potential employer.
Sample Answer: “Overall, I am satisfied with the way management has guided me in my job. However, I do think that empowering employees and giving them independence from the beginning would allow them to be more innovative.”
This is a difficult question to answer without being critical if you are leaving because the culture is toxic. One way to respond is to say that you realize the company is paying more attention to the culture and that change takes a long time. That way you recognize that the environment is not fantastic but that you appreciate the company attempting to affect change.
If you are asked to give an example of where culture could be improved, you could say something inoffensive, such as there should be more frequent opportunities for staff to voice their concerns to management.
Sample Answer: “I think the company’s culture is beginning to change for the better now that management is seeing the value of employee input. If changes are made based on that, it can only improve morale. The whole company might benefit if staff are empowered and given more frequent opportunities to offer ideas for change to management.”
Again, it’s tempting to say what you really think about your work environment and list off all the reasons that made you want to find another job. Don’t. You will only appear to be complaining, and nothing you say is going to make the company suddenly start paying people more, working them less, or listening to their concerns before they decide to walk out the door.
Therefore, a safe way to answer this question is to say that you were ready to move on with your career.
Sample Answer: “I’m not sure. My feeling is that I’m ready to take on new challenges that my current job does not provide. I don’t know exactly what the company’s capacity is to offer similar challenges or development opportunities, so that is a difficult question for me to answer.”
Never say never, right? You can safely answer this question with “Of course!” even if there are many caveats, such as, if you paid me more or if you replaced the managers with better leadership. The company is trying to gauge how bad they are, but don’t consider it your responsibility to tell them at this stage.
If they really wanted to know, they would be asking staff for feedback on a regular basis and making changes based on staff concerns. Don’t burn your bridges with this question and list off what they would have to change for you to consider working with them again.
Sample Answer: “This company has provided me with valuable skills. I have enjoyed working here, but my expertise and career goals would be prioritized at my new position and I would advance quicker. However, if I received the right offer, I would strongly consider returning.”
Don’t feel bad about speaking a little white lie here. After all, even if the company was not the right fit for you, who’s to say it might not be the right fit for someone else? You might recommend the company to a friend, after telling them about your experience. It’s up to them to decide if they want to work for a company, all you can do is inform them.
If your answer is no, be prepared for a litany of questions to find out why. This is something to avoid at all costs.
Sample Answer: “It would depend on the job and the person. I would recommend this company to a friend if I thought the position matched what they were looking for.”
You might feel that it is a cop-out to manage an exit interview this way. But companies often conduct exit interviews knowing that they should be asking similar questions of employees as part of their normal day-to-day activities. Not only should they be polling staff regularly, but they should be listening and making changes based on the feedback to improve employee retention. If your company is merely doing exit interviews as a matter of course, simply answer the questions as positively as you can and move on.
Here are some final tips. Be positive, control your emotions, be aware of the signals that your body language may send, and stay relaxed. That’s the best way to manage an exit interview so that you secure a good reference for your future and maintain good relationships with your peers.