What to do and what not to do during an exit interview

Exit interviews are tricky. Just like any other interview, your goal is to look like a winner. However, unlike any other interview, this is the only kind where you’re putting in effort just to walk out the door and forfeit your employment.

Maybe you were fired or laid off, or perhaps you quit because you found a better opportunity elsewhere or just couldn’t stomach working at your current company anymore. Whatever your reason, there’s a chance you’ll be brought in for an exit interview before you go. This type of interview has consequences, so here are tips and tricks on how to navigate one and come out the other side in fighting shape. A few tips on what not to do are included as well, so read on for everything you need to know about exit interviews.

Do: not say much

Speech is silver, but silence is golden. That’s the rule you should keep in the back of your mind when it comes to exit interviews. After all, the HR folks trapped in the interview room probably don’t care all that much about you or why you’re leaving, as long as the reason behind the latter is something innocuous. They will care, though, if you say something super nasty and vindictive about your now-former employer. So, when in doubt, zip your lips.

If you absolutely must say something, dwell on the positive aspects. Did you like your supervisor, the unlimited paid time off policies, or the company facilities? Then say so, if you’re uncomfortable with a lot of awkward silence during the exit interview. Whatever you do, though, don’t go ballistic.

Don’t: rant

Burning bridges is never wise in the world of work, since you never know when your past words will come back to bite you. If you call the company a disorganized zoo on your way out, or describe your boss exclusively in expletives during the exit interview, know that not only will those words permanently destroy your relationship with any higher-ups at your former company, but they might be talked about with employers at the next place you apply to. It’s a small world out there, and more people know each other than you can ever imagine—especially within the same or similar occupations. So unless you’re planning to transition from investment banker to fry cook, expect your words to follow you.

It is human nature to want to express emotion and, on a deeper level, be honest with the person across from you. So if you’re worried you’re going to have a hard time controlling your temper in the interview, just ask a friend if you can pretend they’re the exit interview HR personnel the night before the real thing. Then, vent away in private with your pal so you’re nice and defused by the time you arrive in front of the actual HR team.

Do: discuss logistics

Kerry Hannon wrote an article for Forbes about exit interviews and expressed an interesting opinion regarding what you should do during your final meeting with HR: provide hard facts. As Hannon wrote in her piece: “Are you leaving because your salary or benefits were not competitive with the company’s competitors (one of whom you may be headed to)? Were there not enough opportunities for promotion? Employers love competitive data, even if it doesn’t make them look great.”

Hannon makes many more salient points in her article, but this one is of particular interest. Though some insecure employers might not like to be reminded of their own inferiority, lots of good business folk and their associated HR teams will likely appreciate some insight into what they can do better as well as what other companies are offering, especially if you state things nicely and matter-of-factly.

Be aware, though, that you might be setting yourself up for an exit interview beginner’s trap by going this route. If you say something like “the salary was too low” during your exit interview and point the finger toward a competitor who offers more money and has been trying to court you, your current employer might make a last-minute bid to keep you by offering more money (or some other equivalent perk).

If this happens, it can end up being a lose-lose. If you’re not happy with their new offer, you’ve just awkwardly prolonged your exit and spent precious extra seconds risking a potential bridge burn. After all, no employer likes to be rejected—especially not twice in a row.

On the other hand, if you like your almost-former-employer’s counter-offer and take it, there may be consequences. Sure, you’ll have temporarily improved your current job situation, but it might cause your bosses to hold a bit of resentment toward you, since you’re now the employee who demanded more. You can argue it’s not your fault they offered to sweeten the pot to keep you around, and you’d be entirely correct, but humans aren’t terribly rational creatures. Bosses even less so.
Don’t: sit on knowledge of illegal activities

Here’s a fun one: are you quitting because of rampant sexual harassment in your department, or a group of colleagues’ obsession with illegal substances? Whatever the reason, don’t wait ’til the exit interview to shock your employer with this news. In an article for CNBC, Elizabeth Yuko writes that it’s far better to mention these things when they happen as opposed to after you’ve turned in your letter of resignation.

If you have any familiarity with the world of work, then you’re not naive enough to believe that reporting wrongdoings are always a safe move. If you report the wrong people on the totem pole, you might be the one who gets fired, regardless of the offenses committed. So be careful with Yuko’s advice. There’s a chance that by reporting something bad you’ll improve the lives of your colleagues, but it could come back to bite you, too. Weigh the pros and cons and plan a course of action based on that.

The takeaway is this: don’t start dishing on illegal happenings during the exit interview. No bombshells, no temper tantrums, no nothing—silence, a bit of positivity, or hard facts are the only strategies you should consider employing when you get in the room with HR to say your last goodbye.