4 Things You Should Never Do in an Exit Interview

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(U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Triton Lai)

These days, it’s extremely rare for anyone to stay in the first job they get after leaving the military for the rest of their civilian career. If you’re one of those people, congratulations; you saved yourself a lot of time and stress. Everyone else is likely to move to another company at some point.

For many companies, part of the process of letting a departing employee go includes an exit interview. An exit interview is almost the mirror image of a job interview, but instead of asking the employee why they want to work for a company, the company will want to know why the employee is leaving.

The company will use this information to understand its employees better and keep turnover low. It also will be interested in how it can retain its best employees better. The interviewer will try to keep it light, but ask detailed questions about your departure and let you guide the conversation.

If you intend to stay in the same industry, as many people do, there are a few very important things you never should do.

1. Don’t Bad-Mouth Your Supervisor.

There’s a saying among human resources professionals: “People don’t leave jobs; they leave bosses.” With this in mind, know that the person interviewing you (who will be at least one level above your direct supervisor) is probably already assuming your boss played a role in your departure.

If your direct boss was a huge problem during your tenure, find a diplomatic way to express the problem you had with him or her. For example, if your boss kept taking credit for your ideas, it’s far better to say you want more recognition for your contributions to the team rather than calling your boss an idea thief.

2. Don’t Burn the Bridge.

Industries, even large industries, can be small worlds. Many people throughout an industry or sector are professional colleagues and friends, even when they work with different companies. If you use your exit interview as an opportunity to vent your pent-up frustrations and detail every perceived injustice in a mean-spirited and angry way, word likely will get out about how you left the company. One event could define your reputation in the entire industry, and it could come back to haunt you.

Even if you’re frustrated and leaving the company on bad terms, it’s best to be polite and professional in your tone and diplomatic with your problems. If you really want to help out the company in the wake of your departure, you can point out areas of improvement. That’s what the exit interview is all about. It also will help improve the possibility of getting a good recommendation down the road. But …

3. Don’t Help Fix Their Problems.

Not every job or career change happens on bad terms. Many, many employees voluntarily leave a company to pursue a better opportunity. In this case, the exit interview is designed to help the company you’re leaving retain its best talent. They inevitably will ask what solutions you might offer to fix the problems you notice.

If that sounds like you’re doing a bit of work for the company, you’re right. If they deem it necessary, businesses hire consultants to fix the kind of flaws you’ll point out in your exit interview. Depending on where you are in your career, that consultant could be you! It could be a chance to earn some extra money, using only your experience. Don’t give it away for free. Even if you have no intention of consulting, they can fix their own issues. It’s not on you to do it for them.

4. Don’t Decline the Exit Interview.

No matter why a company wants to do an exit interview, if your reasons for leaving the company are in your control, never decline to do the exit interview. You have a long career ahead of you, and this may not be the last time you encounter the company, your coworkers or even the person conducting your exit interview. Recommendations, invitations and even job offers to come back to a better environment at the same company could be a thing of the future.

If you’re uncomfortable with a question asked during the interview or with the situation in the room, there’s nothing wrong with saying so. There’s no risk of you losing your job or detriment to your new position by declining individual questions rather than the interview itself. This way, you’ll be confident you left on professional terms, with your reputation and future intact.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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