should you be honest in an exit interview?

A reader writes:

I am leaving my job in a few days, on excellent terms. Our HR manager just set up the exit interview and (somewhat to my surprise) asked me to fill out an exit survey. Is this normal? This is my first “real” job, so I don’t know.

The survey asks, among other things, my reasons for leaving. Fair enough. However, I’m concerned that the unvarnished truth could damage the terms of my departure. Am I supposed to tell it? My stated and primary reason for leaving is to go back to school, but I’ve been very unhappy with certain changes in company culture in recent months, such as increasingly long hours (55 is the minimum, 60+ is very common) and the expectation that we all work the weekends. The company has grown faster than we can hire, but these were not the expectations I signed up for. I have a great boss with whom I have spoken in private about these items (my boss agreed but is not in a position to make changes), but I’m not so comfortable talking with HR. At the same time, my coworkers have expressed fear over my imminent departure, and turnover is through the roof. Morale is terrible. Should I voice the concerns of the junior people, or should I just make sure the terms of my departure stay excellent?

Yes, exit interviews and exit surveys are very common. People frequently recommend not being candid on them, out of fear of burning your bridges … but I totally disagree. As a manager, I know there are things going on that I don’t know about, and I rely on people being candid with me so that I can fix things that need to be fixed — whether it’s unreasonable expectations, a tyrannical manager, or whatever. So I cringe every time I see people advised not to be forthright in exit interviews.

That said, you do want to factor in what you know about how your company, and this HR manager in particular, handles honest feedback. Do they have a history of shooting the messenger? If so, they have only themselves to blame if no one is candid with them. But assuming they’ve seemed reasonably open to feedback in the past, my advice is to be honest about the things that bothered you. And assuming you can do so without resorting to lying, balance it out with comments about things you did like, so that you don’t leave them with an impression of overwhelming disgruntlement.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 14 comments… read them below }

  1. HR Wench*

    And by the way – sometimes this kind of thing (55-60 hr workweeks + weekends) happens at the best of companies. It is usually (at the better ones, in my opinion) temporary. But if you see no end in sight and don’t want or can’t work this way, then don’t feel guilty about it. Not ever job or company is for everyone. Some people have other priorities that trump working those kinds of hours – I know I do.

  2. Anonymous*

    Thanks AAM!

    HR wench — yes, I know that is normal at even the best of places. When I started, there were lots of long weeks and weekends, but it was balanced by some shorter weeks. Historically, I was happy to do long hours and/or weekends when the company (a) thanked me and (b) didn’t set deadlines during the weekends but it’s been 7+ months of these hours consistently, plus a promise that we’re “almost over the hump”. I’m burnt out.

  3. HR Guru*

    As an HR professional myself, I know that EXIT interviews are common practice, however, the rebel in me asks, “WHY?” Why do we wait until the damage is done? This makes absolutely no sense to me at all. With better leadership, (I make a major distinction between “managers” and “leaders”) issues that culminate in an employee becoming an “ex” would be brought to light and addressed well before an “EXIT” interview. Am I alone here?

  4. Rachel - Employment File*

    If you’re going to chose to be honest then be very very careful about how you word things. Yes, some HR people want to know the truth but for each one of those there are HR people who will reject you in the future for telling the truth in the exit interview.

  5. almostgotit*

    I disagree with being honest in an exit interview, if being honest involves any negativity. As delicious as it might feel to let it all out at this point, the *only* debt owed by a departing employee, especially by an abused one, is to herself. *Protect your references,* and don’t ever burn bridges — even if someone else hands you the matches.

    While the rare HR or manager person might like the free cookies, it is not an ex-employee’s job to fix what’s broken at his/her former company. Chances are they can’t anyway, else they’d have stayed. The time to exert influence is when one still holds a job, and that time for a departing employee has passed.

    Get out with your portfolio — and your employability — intact, period. Oh, and don’t forget to grab that hard-won contact list on your way out the door!

  6. Ask a Manager*

    Almost Got It: I think it really depends on the employee and the people she’s talking to in the exit interview. I’ve had great success being honest in those situations — to the point that the company later asked me to consult on some of the issues I had raised. So I don’t think this is a one-size-fits-all situation and you have to evaluate each individually. Not all employers are the enemy (some are but not all).

  7. Paul*

    I always recommend a considered, but honest approach to completing exit surveys.

    If you're concerned about a specific issue within the firm that has contributed to you deciding to leave, how do you expect the organization can change for the better if you keep it to yourself?

    Keep focused on providing constructive, balanced exit feedback and do your employer (and their future employees) a favour.

  8. B.K.*

    I gave my 2 weeks notice this past Friday and was kind of hoping that they would just say OK, we want you to just go ahead and leave now, but that was not the case. So now I’m there for 7 more work days and really don’t want to be there but my new job doesn’t start until Feb. On my exit interview they have about 25 questions they want me to answer……oh I could tell them some stuff, but why would I? I’m just going to tell them I have a better job with better pay. End of story. They don’t need to know anything more…..Thank God I live in America!!!!!!

  9. Jon*

    Be honest!!!!!

    Don’t hide anything. As a Manager, be truthful …. most of these go to the C-level staff of the company so they can review and see why people leave their companies.

  10. Anonymous*

    Play it safe and don’t be honest during the exit interview because the HR person will pound on you.

  11. Anonymous*

    I’ve been working on contract at a firm for over a year now. I am told by my employer that they plan to renew my contract, only I’m not sure. I have recently completed graduate school, and don’t feel the contract pays an amount commensurate with my education (pay at $15 per hour). Additionally, I’m the only one in our department who does not possess benefits, and I am required to pay out of pocket for any work travel or not go, and risk not having that opportunity to develop professionally. Again, everyone else in my department is permitted to travel for professional development.

    My question is, how much of this, if any, do I disclose to my employer when stating I’m not interested in renewing? I do not wish to leave on bad terms, but I truly feel like I’m not developing or growing in my career. I’d love some guidance.

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