Whether you’re leaving your job on good terms or bad ones, chances are an exit interview will be part of the process. Even in the best of circumstances, these meetings can provoke anxiety about what to say, what not to say, and how to make sure you’re leaving with the best possible impression. In the worst scenarios, it can be tough to balance the desire to be honest about your work experience and the reasons you’re leaving without throwing anyone under the bus. After all, you never know who you might cross paths with again in the future.
To make the process easier, we talked to top HR pros to get their best advice on how to stay calm, cool, and collected throughout the process.
1. Remember the purpose of an exit interview.
In the end, the exit interview isn’t really about you, and it’s important to be aware of that before going into one. “Exit interviews typically take place for the employer’s sake, not the employee’s,” explains Dina Amouzigh, People’s Operations Manager at the online healthcare portal CareDash. “The purpose is to get information and feedback based on the employee’s experience or context for their ultimate decision to separate,” she adds. This is the most important thing to keep in mind heading into the meeting, since ultimately the company you’re leaving stands to benefit from your intel, not the other way around.
Remember, you don’t have to share anything you’re uncomfortable talking about, and you definitely shouldn’t use the meeting as an emotional outlet to let out frustrations you feel about your time at the company.
2. If you’re nervous, prepare ahead of time.
“I highly recommend writing down notes to plan what you want to say,” advises Jude Miller-Burke, Ph.D., business psychologist and author. “If you expect it to be highly charged, practice out loud. Reinforce to yourself that you will maintain boundaries and not succumb to your strong emotions.” Writing in a journal beforehand is a good way to sort out your thoughts, she adds. “Seeing this meeting as an opportunity for you to practice self-management, a skill critical to success, may decrease your stress. Having a friend to call after the meeting can be a helpful debriefing.”
3. Get specific about the good.
When it comes to positive feedback, get into the nitty gritty. “You want to be sure to share specifics about what (or who) made the work experience positive,” says Laura MacLeod, LMSW, HR expert and founder of the From The Inside Out Project. Points to highlight include “how you learned and grew as a professional and what you’ll remember and why,” she adds. These topics give the human resources department important information about how they can continue to promote a positive work environment and who is having a beneficial impact on other employees. In other words, you’re paying it forward by highlighting what the company you’re leaving got right.
4. Be general about the bad.
Even if you had a horrible experience at a company, experts unilaterally advise against throwing another person under the bus during an exit interview. It’s just not the time or the place. That being said, there are ways to let HR know about the real motive behind your departure. “I believe there are ways to be honest and retain your professionalism,” says Miller-Burke. “Speak in general terms and never identify people you are angry with. It is fine, for example, to express that the workload was more than any one person could handle, if done in the right tone,” she says. It’s also okay to say something like, “I think managers should get more training in active leadership,” but it’s best to avoid statements like, “Tom was the worst boss I’ve ever had.”
5. Find the silver lining.
No matter how awful your experience was, it’s important to mention at least one positive during your final conversation. “Find something that you honestly feel was positive,” recommends MacLeod. “This may be tough, but it is important to demonstrate your professionalism. You are able to see and acknowledge that there were benefits and opportunities there, despite the way things turned out.”
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