is it rude to ask resigning employees where they’re going?

A reader writes:

Is it rude to ask people where they are going when I know they are leaving the company? I recently had the following email exchange with someone who I don’t know very well but with whom I have worked in a limited capacity. I really like her, and now I feel bad that maybe I shouldn’t have said anything at all to avoid causing an awkward interaction or making her uncomfortable.

Guy: Sarah is leaving the company this Friday and will need you to review for any changes by close of business tomorrow Thursday so she can make changes before she leaves.

Me (privately, to Sarah): Good luck in your next role! Where will you be going?

Sarah: Thanks! Nothing at first. Time will tell :)

Me: Ah, I see. Well, it’s definitely our loss. Please let me know if I can make any introductions for you or facilitate your job search in any way. You’re one of the good ones. J

Sarah: You are wonderful! Thanks, Sarah

It’s really normal to ask people where they’re going when they leave. Sometimes it can lead to a mildly awkward conversation (the person is actually being pushed out and doesn’t know where they’re going, or they refuse to say in an oddly chilly-sounding way, or they just don’t want to answer), but the vast majority of the time, it leads to pleasant information exchanges where the person is happy to say what they’ll be doing next and you can congratulate them.

That said, sometimes people don’t want to say where they’re going because they worry that they work for a horrible employer who will somehow make life difficult for them at their next job. If that’s the case, though, they can simply say something vague like “I’ll be doing the same type of work for a small firm” or “I’m not quite ready to announce it yet” or whatever.

But the question itself is a normal one to ask, generally borne out of genuine interest in the other person, and you shouldn’t feel weird about it or like you put your foot in your mouth.

{ 62 comments… read them below }

  1. AdAgencyChick*

    It’s so, so normal. Usually when people refuse to answer, at least in my industry, it’s because they’re planning to go work on an account that directly competes with the one they’re on now.

    Refusal to answer, or answering and saying you’re going to a direct competitor, can lead to being asked not to work the notice period, but often doesn’t. Often people are too desperate to get as much out of the departing employee as possible to care whether she takes some files with her.

    1. INFJ*

      I came to say the same thing. Sometimes when someone leaves they can’t say where they’re going because they will reveal that they will be violating a noncompete agreement. Regardless of the reason, I’d say it’s the responsibility the leaving person to decide what to disclose and remain professional in the last days. I don’t think it’s rude to ask what the person’s plans are.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        It’s not rude to ask, but it’s kind of a dick move to be a jerk about it if they don’t want to say anything. I understand in some industries it’s probably best that someone who is leaving not work a notice period–but I assume those people know that about their industry and would prepare accordingly. But there are plenty of jobs where it’s not an issue.

      2. Don*

        Yes it is rude. You should never ask. Experienced professionals know this. If the person discloses itnthen fine if they don’t then don’t ask. They will you know. You weren’t friends, you were conworkers.

    2. ThatGirl*

      I know when I worked in newspapers, reporters would sometimes leave to go do PR, for instance for the county heath department, and when they gave notice they would be told their last day was immediately.

    3. KathyGeiss*

      I think that if someone refused to say where they were going in my industry they would be walked out that day because of the risk they’re going to a competitor.

      People leave for the competition often but they are usually up front about it and expect to be asked to leave right away. It’s not personal, it’s just the way things are.

    4. Spondee*

      Yes! I’m in advertising, too, and I just had this happen with one of my direct reports. She wasn’t even going to a direct competitor, but she wouldn’t say where she was going, so she wasn’t allowed to work through her notice period.

    5. Nicole Michelle*

      That happened with a coworker of mine who left for another marketing place and didn’t want to say where…she got let go immediately!

  2. The Cosmic Avenger*

    I sometimes try to put it in a very noncommittal way, like “Do you have something else lined up?” That way they can just say “yes”. If it’s someone I’m kind of close to or who I know doesn’t get a hint easily, I might follow up a “yes” with “I hope they appreciate you” or something, to give them one more opening to talk about their new job. (If it’s someone I’m very close to, I’d just corner them and interrogate them. ;) )

  3. Kyrielle*

    What they said. And honestly, if I was Sarah, your last quoted reply would’ve made me really happy and comfortable with the exchange, FWIW. :) I think you really handled it very normally and well.

    1. TCO*

      Agreed. It’s not necessarily shameful/embarrassing to leave without having something else lined up. Sarah might voluntarily be taking time off to care for family, enjoy an extended vacation, go to training/school, or figure out her next steps. You didn’t do anything wrong by asking, and I agree that your response was really gracious and kind.

      When I was laid off it was a little awkward to tell people I was leaving but didn’t have a new position yet (not everyone knew that the funding for my role had ended). But it meant a lot to hear that people would miss me, had faith that I’d find another great job, and were happy to help if they could. It was a confidence boost right when I needed it.

  4. Laurel Gray*

    I don’t think it is rude and I do believe it is very normal.

    What I find rude, awkward and absolutely ridiculous is employees being terminated or giving their notice and in an exit interview being asked how the department or company could improve. I really do not think the exit interview is the place for the victim of a toxic workplace/boss/colleague to finally receive a listening ear. (Quite a few people have told me their HR or boss has done this)

    1. Bowserkitty*

      The only time I ever voluntarily left a job I had to do this, and it was the most awkward thing. I was also in high school and didn’t know how to vocalize that my boss couldn’t control their mood swings and I hated sharing my desk with somebody who would hide my personal effects and replace them with her religious things…

      So I just told them I was leaving to focus on my studies (definitely true as I was a senior) and I had absolutely no opinions either way.

      1. Bowserkitty*

        I should note, voluntarily left an administrative job. Come to think of it, the bagelry didn’t care.

        1. KR*

          I had this happen in high school, but with a fast food job. I had a supervisor who had become borderline abusive towards me, and I didn’t know how to say that I was quitting because whenever I had to work with her she would give me anxiety attacks. They offered me a raise, different hours, whatever to stay and I just repeated that it was time for me to do something different.

    2. the gold digger*

      I refused to participate in an exit interview. The HR person tried to imply that I had an obligation to let them know what was going on so they could make things better for other people. I told her that they already knew there was a problem based on the turnover and on their own interactions with the CEO and they had enough information to do what they needed to do. I didn’t need a vindictive, spiteful, vicious CEO somehow ruining my career.

      1. Windchime*

        This is how I felt when I left my last job, too. They didn’t care about my concerns when I was employed there; why should I help them out now that I’m leaving? A friend who left several years after I did went through his exit interview and was painfully honest with them about why he left, and nothing changed. He has been gone less than 3 years and they have gone through five people, trying to replace him. So my instincts were right; they were just going through the motions when they asked.

      2. Jimbo*

        This is my feeling too so hopefully I can stand firm when I resign. I’ve heard HR here puts a lot of pressure on people who decline to do the exit interview. My thought is we take employee surveys every year, the results are identical (and always bad) yet nothing changes. So then exactly why is my exit interview so important?

    3. Honeybee*

      I think it depends on the situation. I have had exit interviews in which I was leaving voluntarily and I was asked what the department could do to improve. I answered honestly with some (but not all) of the things I genuinely thought the department could use. I left out anything that I thought they couldn’t action or that was pretty negative-sounding – like the fact that the personalities of some of the managers created a really toxic situation for their direct reports, or second-hand information that I knew to be true but hadn’t directly experienced myself. My feedback was well-received – I know because my manager came to me the next day and told me that the director who interviewed me appreciated my feedback but also appreciated the neutral, calm way in which I gave it.

      And I know the outcome – that director left, my very competent and awesome manager was promoted into her position, and she definitely used some of the feedback I gave to improve the department and the position. So you never know.

    4. Num Lock*

      When I left my last job, my “exit interview” was a Survey Monkey survey emailed from someone in HR who, in 4 years, I’d never heard from before. More anonymous than having my bullying supervisor do it, and certainly cheaper than sending someone down from the main office… but seriously, a Survey Monkey? You can’t schedule 15 minutes to call me in a conference room and pretend you care what I have to say?

      Was I brutally honest in the questionnaire? Yes. Will it make a difference? I expect not. But it made me feel better, and that’s all that really counts. I left behind many great employees, but it’s up to them to get out of there. The issues at my last job would’ve required a mass firing at multiple levels and extensive cultural overhaul to fix, and that just isn’t going to happen.

      1. Jimbo*

        We do an online survey and then follow it up with an in-person interview. I’ve heard the interview only lasts a few minutes if you don’t say anything negative.

  5. Eric*

    I know we have gotten questions here of people asking how to avoid answering this question if they don’t want to say, for one reason or another. I really like the phrasing “Time will tell”, because it doesn’t actually say anything, but is still polite.

  6. Jamie*

    When I left my old company I refused to reveal where I was going until I started the new job. Mostly due to paranoia revolving around my HR exec. And it was a completely different job in a completely different industry. A pleasant “I’m letting people know after I start on x date” did the trick.

    1. Jamie*

      Also: I didn’t think it was rude of anyone to ask where I was going. In fact, I think I would have been more worried if no one asked, because I would have assumed they just didn’t care or were happy to see me go!

    2. Laura*

      Are you me? I was so paranoid about the HR rep who met with me and the ramifications of leaving my position. Fortunately I had not been given a formal start date for my new job at the time of my leaving, so I was able to say something vague.

  7. BRR*

    LW, you handled this perfectly. It’s normal to ask where someone is going and you didn’t pry. Having recently been fired, I think the most important thing is to accept any vagueness. Also after reading your letter I like that you did it electronically so it doesn’t put her on the spot to come up with an excuse if she had to.

  8. The Alias That Gloria Has Been Living Under, A.A., B.S.*

    Yeah I think you were fine. Maybe she didn’t want to share, or like Alison said, maybe she was being forced out? I was forced out of The Worst Job Ever ™ and on my way out the door on my last day I pass my boss in the hallway and she had the nerve – THE NERVE – to ask where I was moving on to. (She was the one that forced me out) I said something like “Yeah I’m not sure yet, I guess we’ll see” but of course I wanted to say something like “I don’t know, the poor house maybe?”

      1. The Alias Gloria Has Been Living Under, A.A., B.S.*

        She was a piece of work. When I’m having bad days I remind myself that at least she’s not my boss any more.

    1. Corporate Cynic*

      That’s horrible. I would have been so tempted to say “Not sure yet, but since you won’t be there it can only be better!” or some snarkier/dirtier version thereof.

      1. The Alias Gloria Has Been Living Under, A.A., B.S.*

        Oh yeah, I kind of wish I had too. I’ve fantasized about seeing her broke down on the side of the road and pulling over to ask if she needs help and when she does telling her “Well too bad!!!!” and then making her eat my dust. Or some variation thereof.

        1. Washington*

          I feel better about myself as a person now, that I’m not the only person who’s had this kind of daydream. Mine have also included seeing awfuloldboss in a sinking row boat and clapping as she slowly sinks in the middle of a pond.

          1. Stranger than fiction*

            Mine involved cutting their brake lines :o

            (Of course I would never really but one can fantasize)

          2. Doriana Gray*

            Mine have also included seeing awfuloldboss in a sinking row boat and clapping as she slowly sinks in the middle of a pond.

            LOL! Well damn.

            1. Wendy*

              Ooooooh ‘enry ‘iggins!
              Just you wait until we’re swimmin’ in the sea!
              Ooooooh ‘enry ‘iggins!
              And you get a cramp a little ways from me!
              When you yell you’re going to drown I’ll get dressed
              and go to town! Oh ho ho, ‘enry ‘iggins!
              Oh ho ho, ‘enry ‘iggins! Just you wait!

              1. Heth*

                You’ve all made my day. Especially Wendy, I made my husband watch My Fair Lady on Valentine’s day as he hadn’t seen it before. He loved it and has been singing the songs ever since.

                OP I left my last job with nothing lined up and was never offended by people asking where I was going, like someone earlier I would have been a bit upset if they didn’t! I felt a little awkward explaining at first especially to people I knew less well but was never offended.

                1. Anon for this one*

                  For me it was awkward, especially since I was being forced out. When I was asked where I was going, I smiled and said, “I’ll let you know as soon as I get there.” Many folks were absolutely shocked and apologized for even asking, which, actually, made me feel much better about getting out of there.

                  But I never thought it was rude of them, and I always appreciated folks asking.

  9. NJ Anon*

    I don’t think it is rude at all. When I was leaving toxic job, I didn’t want my boss to know where I was going because I was afraid he knew my new boss and would talk negatively about me. So when someone asked I said “oh, another social services agency.” And that was enough. (My good buddies knew where I was going anyway.)

    We had a co-worker who got upset when people asked her where she was going. Said it was rude to ask. I said, no, it’s actually pretty common. I think either she didn’t have anything lined up or was taking a step down in position just to get out. She was an odd bird.

  10. Wendy Darling*

    I think it’s perfectly fine to ask! And I say that as someone who got laid off and had nothing else lined up and so had a lot of awkward conversations as a result of that question.

  11. Kateyjl*

    It’s fine to ask the question. It’s not okay to INSIST upon an answer. Fortunately, that didn’t happen in your exchange.

  12. None of Your Business!*

    No, I don’t actually say that; nor do I feel that way. But, I often do NOT reveal where I am going for the reasons that others have suggested here – non-competitive agreements.

    I often do NOT trust current company to not give me a hard time going to work for a competitor. But, those who I trust I will gladly tell – after I get my last paycheck. And usually they will notice it through LinkedIn.

    So, no, it isn’t a problem when people ask me – and most have had no problem with me being “secret” about it. What I usually say when I hear someone is leaving is “congrats! and best of luck!”

  13. Anonymous Educator*

    It’s totally normal. When I left my first full-time “real” job, I had people asking me where I was going to go (I was career-shifting, so it was tough to have something lined up right away), and unfortunately I had to just say “I don’t know.” But it wasn’t a problem them asking me about it. It’s totally cool to ask. Other times, I’ve just said where I’m going, and people have wished me well.

  14. Just me*

    EXACTLY the reason I didn’t tell my former boss where I was going. I couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t call them up and say who knows what. I did tell my coworkers though. They were all on their way out also.

  15. Revolver Rani*

    I agree with the general consensus that there is nothing rude about asking. I often phrase the question more like, “so, what’s next for you?” This doesn’t have any implicit assumption that what’s next is an already-lined-up clearly-defined job, and leaves the door open for facetious or non-committal responses (“I’m going to Disney World!”) if that’s what the person wants to give.

    1. Adam V*

      I’d love to be able to go to Disney World every time I switched jobs! Just take a week, fly to Orlando, dine with characters, watch the fireworks, then fly back and start the new job fully refreshed.

      1. Granite*

        My last boss ended up giving notice two weeks before a planned tropical vacation. He walked out the door approx 12 hours before the car to the airport was scheduled to pick him up.

  16. Gwen*

    I would find it more rude if people didn’t ask, honestly. I mean, obviously don’t push if someone seems reticent to tell you, but if I was moving on and no one asked me where I was going, I would just feel very “out of sight/out of mind,” like none of these people cared about me beyond my function as a cog in the machine…which even if that’s true, they can pretend to be interested ;)

  17. BBBizAnalyst*

    Personally, kept where I was going to myself when I left toxic job. Manager was known to accidentally on purpose try to ruin everyone’s exit opportunities. I am sure these organizations thought she was a loon when she reached out but I didn’t want to risk it.

  18. Meg Murry*

    So I try not to engage in workplace gossip, but since Sarah is effectively fictional to me, my mind is spinning with all kinds of crazy possibilities for why she isn’t telling, rather than the boring, more likely to be true answers Alison gave. It wouldn’t be cool to gossip and speculate about my actual coworker, but for a fictional one, here’s where my mind went:

    -Can’t tell you because she’s going to the CIA, NSA or some other Agency so secret we don’t even know it exists
    -Going into the Witness protection program
    -One of the Powerball winners still keeping her identity secret so we don’t all hit her up for money, finally has all the paperwork cleared with her lawyer to collect the money under a secret shell company/trust
    -Has such a big secrets over one of the bosses she’s blackmailing him for enough money to be able to leave and stay on the payroll as long as she keeps the dark dirty secret
    -She’s not actually leaving the company, come Monday you’ll find out her boss was fired and she’s taking that job
    -Any other scenario where she has a lot of money now (through a side business, inheritance etc) and now she’s off to live on a desert island/run her Etsy business of artisinal organic whatsits/write her next best-selling novel/travel the world/insert dream here

    Any other crazy places your mind might go if you saw this email exchange?

    1. Windchime*

      Going to live off the grid in a Tiny House in the mountains. She’ll live off the land and work on her new, more efficient Solar Energy invention.

  19. Lizh*

    I too left a toxic job and would not say where I was going. When another employee left a few years earlier, old boss found out where she was going. He called up her new boss, who was supposedly a friend of his, and gave him what for for hiring her. My new boss had apparently heard the story because he flat out asked to not say where I was going because he did not want the same type of call. They would find out soon enough, since it was a competitor in a niche industry.

  20. Ruffingit*

    I’ve done the vague answer a time or two, usually because current workplace was so toxic that I had no interest in letting these people know where I would be going because I didn’t want to have any repercussions whatsoever as in they knew someone at new workplace, etc. Sad when that has to be the way it is, but some workplaces just force you to be vague.

  21. Chocolate Teapot*

    Somebody in my company left recently, and all we know is that he is working in the same industry in the same city. He will probably confirm the name of his new company in the near future.

  22. Nancypie*

    I’ve seen people who won’t say where they’re headed as a strategy to not have to work through their notice period. If you won’t say where you’re going, and you have access to enough information, people assume the worst (in my industry) and you may be walked out.

  23. Nunya*

    Thank you for this timely post! I’m seriously considering quitting toxic job of 8 years with nothing else lined up. Have some prospects but no actual new job. I won’t be offended when I’m asked where I’m going but I’m uncomfortable with everyone knowing that I don’t have a new gig yet I don’t want to be too vague or chilly about it either. I’m in HR and in the public sector, I work for a city (350 employees) where people have been leaving in waves, the majority for other better paying cities/ agencies.
    I have been diligent in my job search (it’s my part time job) and been on many interviews over the past 2+ years (I’ve lost count)…but NOT ONE OFFER!!! I’m trying to stay within the public pension system b/c I have 23 years in but not old enough to retire. To add insult to injury, I’m the one who does the exit processing for the folks that leave! (I don’t press for the exit interview but I do have to ask if they want to do it). So one after another, I hear where they’re all going. And no one ever says “I got nothing.”

    So obviously I’m going to get the question from many people in many departments and I know I shouldn’t worry about what others think (geez the HR woman can’t get a job? what’s wrong with her?) but looking for just the right thing to say without telling it all or sounding bitter and miserable. Appreciate any suggestions.

    Meg Murry, you’re speculation list is hilarious.
    Ms. Alison, thank you for an excellent blog. I’m hooked!

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