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How To Navigate An Exit Interview And Why It Matters

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Apr. 15 2022, Published 8:00 a.m. ET

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If you're managing your career well, it means you're leaving jobs and organizations to pursue better opportunities and more senior roles. Whether you’re leaving due to toxicity, for a better life (hello, great resignation), or for a larger pay check, you cannot avoid an exit interview. I’ve coached many women on how to navigate exit interviews, and with a career on the rise, you’ll need to learn how to nail them.

What is an exit interview, and why should you participate?

Exit interviews occur when a representative from the company, usually from human resources, sits with exiting employees to ask what led them to leave. Deborah Holland, an experienced HR professional, reinforces the premise that employees leave managers and not employers. "Organizations need to know what’s going on in the environment that makes a person choose to leave," she says. While exit interviews are strategic for the organization, there is no legal requirement for them. So, should you make yourself available for exit interviews?

In most cases, yes, you should. We often rely on former team members and managers for references, so it’s important that you don’t burn any bridges as you move on. Exit interviews allow you to shape the narrative that keeps that network open as you leave a job or organization.

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How To Nail The Exit Interview

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1. Establish your goals.

Companies have a goal and so should you. If you’re moving on to a better opportunity, then the goal could be to express what worked for you and some general areas where the company can improve.

In the case of one of my recent coaching clients, her goals were to convey that she loved the company and didn’t necessarily want to leave; to show how her manager’s actions hampered her work and created an untenable situation; and to indicate that her desire to work in a more strategic marketing role was the primary reason for her leaving. Clear goals help you shape how the conversation should go, particularly if you are ready to leave a manager and not the organization.

2. Exit interviews should be confidential, but always assume they are not.

Assume that anything you say will get back to the manager in question. I always advise that you speak your truth but phrase it as though the person is present in the room. That way you don’t have to be worried about what is reported back to them. In my client's case, her manager continually micromanaged her and her direct report, and in some cases, was even doing their jobs for them. We focused on how to present her case in a way that conveyed the impact of the manager's actions without judging or making it a personal attack. The focus was that, despite several conversations, there had been no change in managerial behavior.

For my client, the outcome was successful. She was able to demonstrate her value and was moved to another department in the strategic role that she craved.

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3. Don’t burn bridges.

Another coaching client told me she couldn’t wait for the exit interview to tell company leaders what she truly thought of them. When leaving a toxic environment, the need to vent is a perfectly normal desire. But you must resist it. Trust me, burning bridges is not a good move career wise. It can have extremely costly and unanticipated consequences.

Simply focus on what went well during your tenure. Stick to generalities for your reasons for leaving – better opportunity, more money, etc. If you feel you will lose control of your emotions, decline the exit interview altogether. Simply explain that you are so busy focusing on the next move, you will not have time for the interview. You are not required to help an organization get better, and you do not have to accept their invitation to an exit interview if it will lead to more negativity.

Exit interviews are a wonderful way to leave a company with your reputation and network intact. Unfortunately, conducting exit interviews doesn’t automatically mean companies will act on the insights, but it’s still a good sign when they make it a practice. These three steps should guide you and help you to nail your next exit interview.

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By: Sonia Layne-Gartside

Sonia Layne-Gartside is an accomplished Global Consultant. She works with C-Suite and senior leaders in Fortune 500 companies as a strategic partner to lead Organization Development (OD), Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and HR strategy execution activities. Sonia holds advanced certification in change management from Prosci®, and she is certified as a Master Trainer, DEI Specialist, Case Writer, and Instructional Designer. Her undergraduate degree is in Business Management and her master’s degree is in Education. She is an International Speaker and author of the book Workplace Anxiety: How to Refuel and Re-Engage. In acknowledgement of her work and innovative practices, Sonia was recognized as the 2021 “Leader of the Year” by the Pittsburgh Human Resources Association’s (PHRA). She describes herself as a cheerleader for people and ideas.

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