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How to prepare for an exit interview at work that won’t burn bridges

People leave jobs for all kinds of reasons. You might hate the work culture, or maybe an opportunity to increase your salary came up. But when it comes time to say goodbye, you should take part in any offered exit interview

Exit interviews can be a point of tension for former employees. The idea of sitting down with your soon-to-be former manager, HR or even MD and explaining why you’re leaving in detail can be anxiety-inducing.

But there are several reasons they can be worth doing. So, let's break down why you should take part and how to go about preparing for an exit interview.

What is an exit interview?

Exit interviews are a means for employers to gauge the sentiments of exiting staff. So, they're pretty much exactly what they sound like.

From an employer's perspective, they can help to identify issues with workplace culture including things like pay, development opportunities and management style. For employees, the benefits may not be as immediately clear. But they can really help staff get closure on their time with the business, support staff still working there and help them part on great terms.

What makes them so useful is that, in theory, ex-employees can be more honest.

Current staff may hesitate to be too critical for fear of souring relationships or even getting a ticking off. But departing staff don’t need to fear those in the same way, and so there’s an opportunity to be completely honest.

While they're not quite universal, you'll probably encounter exit interviews at some point. According to research from Harvard Business Review, approximately 75% of companies use them to some degree.

Should you take part?

The theory behind exit interviews is one thing. But even former employees can be reluctant to slate their old workplace. They worry it might hurt their reference or scupper any chance of future work if they're too honest.

That initially feels like a fair concern, but these fears are largely unfounded.

We can't speak for every business in the world, but employers generally aren't that spiteful. Research shows that critical feedback is often the best received and certainly the most impactful at causing change. So it’s unlikely if your current employer is asking you for your opinion they’d lash out at you when giving it.

So, should you do it?

Well, one big benefit to taking part is altruism. Just because you might hate your job doesn't mean you hate your co-workers. By taking part in an exit interview, you may be helping to build a better place for them to work. Though obviously this isn’t guaranteed.

Taking part can also actually help you to part on good terms. If your employer cares, then they'll be glad for your insight. And in the era of LinkedIn networking, that good turn could benefit you down the road.

Preparing for an exit interview

If you're still reading, we'll assume you're at least thinking of taking part. So, let's get you started on preparing for an exit interview with these simple steps:

Plan out what you want to discuss

Shockingly enough, preparing for an exit interview involves... well, preparing. Make a list of issues you want to bring up. If you've been really pushed to get out of your current workplace, it won't be hard to think of some.

But, even then, making a list can help you prioritise. People bringing pungent egg-salad into the office might be your pet peeve. But is it really as important as, say, a lack of development opportunities?

Build up a list of the key points, grab some examples or evidence if you can and know roughly what you want to say on each point.

Sure, you could go in with no planned remarks. The interviewer will have specific questions lined up. But, if you want to do as much good as possible, prepping in advance is the way to go.

Keep it professional

Taking part in an exit interview won't harm your career prospects. But that doesn't mean you should go in all guns blazing.

If you want your insight to be taken seriously, you've got to be calm and rational.

Firstly, keep your cool. There may be genuine toxicity that has pushed you out of the business. But you won't do any good if you go in and start ranting and raving.

Secondly, you need to try and remain objective. As well as not letting emotions get the best of you, it's important to separate fact from opinion. Try to connect the complaints you're making to issues you can identify.

Think of practical suggestions

It's one thing to point out a bunch of problems. It’s another to come armed with solutions. So, when you're preparing for an exit interview, try to think of ideas for improvements.

It's employee buy-in at its simplest. Major changes will only happen in the workplace if people advocate for them. And there's no wake-up call quite like former top talent telling you what could have made them stay.

For example, if it's the commute that killed your engagement, try recommending flexibility in how and where your colleagues get to work in the future.

Use specific examples where possible

One of the best ways of preparing for an exit interview is to find specific examples.

Just to be clear, we're NOT saying to air your colleague's dirty laundry. Listing all the stuff your team-mates have been doing wrong, or complaining about them, is a good way to burn bridges.

Keep names and other identifiers out of it unless you have to – and in reality you shouldn’t have to.

But speaking in general terms can only get you so far. If you can point to specific (ideally documented) incidents, your views will hit harder. For example, you could point to the correlation between a big surge in over-time and the rate of burnout. You could highlight, say, your new open-plan office and the decline in productivity.

This is where a feedback system like a weekly employee check-in can come in handy. You have an entire answer history ready at your disposal, along with goal-tracking updates alongside it. Being able to point to documentation like this helps to highlight the long-term impact of workplace issues. Without clear examples, it's much easier for your arguments to be dismissed.

Preparing is key for a great exit interview experience

So, there you have it. Those are our tips for preparing for an exit interview as an employee.

Just remember to relax, be as honest as you can be, but don't stress about it. And hey, if the idea of it still bothers you, then you still don't have to take part!