Ask the Headhunter: What’s the risk of doing an exit interview?

Avoid getting caught in an exit interview, advises headhunter Nick Corcodilos. Photo by Dave and Les Jacobs/Getty Images.

Avoid getting caught in an exit interview, advises headhunter Nick Corcodilos. Photo by Dave and Les Jacobs/Getty Images.

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979, and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade.

In this special Making Sense edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards, or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.

Question: I’m being shrunk (I mean “downsized”) at the end of the month. I have an exit interview scheduled before then. Any recommendations on what to say and what not to say during the interview? What’s the purpose of the exit interview in this situation anyway? I worry that there may be a risk in agreeing to this meeting.

Nick Corcodilos: Shrunk, downsized, booted, fired, let go… the euphemisms are incredible. But your instinct is correct: Doing an exit interview is risky.

Let’s address your second question first, because it’s important to understand an employer’s motivations. The purpose of the exit interview is twofold. (I’m sure some HR experts could come up with more). On the surface, it’s to help a genuinely caring company learn from a departing employee’s experience. You must decide how caring your company is.

Two, it’s to protect the company from legal repercussions after you depart. That’s why they usually ask you to sign the exit interview notes. By gathering comments from you — especially the obligatory positive comments — the employer creates a record that it can use if, for some reason, you turn around and sue. Yes, that’s a cynical view, but you need to consider it. I think every company conducts exit interviews mainly for this reason — even if they really care about your experience as an employee. You must judge your employer’s motives for yourself.

My objective is to keep you out of trouble; not to help you be your old employer’s good buddy. Some may take issue with this, but my advice is to be polite, say as little as possible, and get it over with quickly. In fact, if you can manage it, avoid the exit interview altogether.

There is no upside for you in doing an exit interview. (I’ve polled many HR folks and none has ever been able to cite a clear benefit to the departing employee.) But there’s a big potential risk if you say something that bothers the interviewer. For example, you could wind up hurting your chance of getting good references in the future if you criticize the company or your boss. Or, let’s say you speak very positively, and then your boss (who isn’t so positive) gives you a bad reference that costs you a job. If you take legal action, the company could use the written exit interview report to show what a great relationship you had. Do these scenarios seem extreme? I’ve seen both happen — not many times, but how much of a risk do you want to take?

So, don’t complain, don’t explain. You’re not going to help the company fix its problems or faults at this juncture. You’re not going to improve your relationship — it’s too late. If what you think really mattered, the company would have asked your opinion long ago, while you were an employee and when management could have used your comments for your benefit.

Here’s the bottom line: It’s a little late to be talking about your employment experience. If you want to offer your boss advice, do it privately and off the record — and certainly not in writing.

I think there’s no benefit in consenting to an exit interview. But use your judgment. Certainly don’t use the exit interview to vent. Invest your effort instead in “Starting a Job on The Right Foot.”

Dear Readers: Have you ever done an exit interview, or refused to do one? What was your experience?

Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “How Can I Change Careers?”, “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

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