Career Advice

When Exiting a Job, Say Nothing…Nothing at All?

Lisa JohnsonPosted by Lisa
min read

Exit interviews are probably one of the most important tools that HR has in their arsenal.  The ability to understand, collate and evaluate why employees leave a business is one of the keys to keeping staff.  This is a tool that allows management to evaluate themselves and the culture of the organisation with the aim of making things better. But it must be jolly hard work when exiting employees are told to keep their mouths shut.  I found this article from Business Insider this morning, and it kind of floored me.  Basically, the contributing experts all had the same thing to say: don't say anything.  Or say something, but not anything particularly useful. In summary, this article says, when in an exit interview, you should NEVER:

  • Admit that you didn't like the people you worked with
  • Say that you didn't like your manager
  • Criticise the business itself (and its viability/performance)
  • Gossip about other people/situations
  • Say that you were good at your job
  • Refuse to comment (although this is just about all you are left with)
  • Say that the money was under par
  • Whinge about equipment and the environment
  • Suggest that your new employer is better

If you can't say any of that, what on earth are you allowed to say??  I agree that you should try to be as positive and professional as possible in an exit interview, but it's important to remember that the decision to leave an employer is emotionally fraught.  Regardless of the reason for leaving, the employee will experience an emotional reaction, which may include a certain sense of anger, disappointment and frustration.  A good HR practitioner understands this and can weed out the emotional responses to focus on the underlying issues. As much as the employee needs to remember to be professional, the employer needs to remember not to be defensive of criticism.  Especially if there is a revolving door of employees entering and exiting the business. Working in recruitment, one of our standard screening questions is to ask why someone has left an employer.  So we hear all the horror stories.  Some of them are truly terrible.  But there is a consistent theme that comes through:

Line managers are terrible.

Businesses have a habit of promoting people based on the level of their incompetence.  A promotion to management is seen as a reward, but it seems like many companies do not bother to train the person on how to manage staff.  Or worse, they don't recognise the new manager's limitations and obsession with micro management and leave them in a role where they routinely offend and obstruct the staff who are actually trying to do the job.

The role was oversold and under delivered.

This is a big one – employers enticing 'star' staff on board with promises of riches and glory, only to leave them with no support, no training and no hope of glory.  Nothing will send an employee packing faster than not delivering on your promises.


People will tell you they don't leave a job because of money, but the truth is being appropriately rewarded is important. If someone has worked hard and does a good job, they need recognition or they will be very tempted when someone else offers them more money than what you are paying them.  The thing is reward doesn't actually have to be financial – there are many employees who would have stayed earning the same money if they felt valued and recognised in other ways.

The team

When someone goes to work, they are going to be spending eight hours in close contact with their colleagues.  We spend more time with these people than our families sometimes.  And it is a universal truth that we are NOT all the same when it comes to working in a team.  Every team has its own culture. There are dominant personalities, workers, conciliators, people with short tempers and people with personal discriminatory beliefs that affect how they deal with those around them.  Some teams are full of ego and energy, some are quiet and reserved.  If you try to put the wrong person into an established team environment without taking into account the culture of that team, then expect failure.

The business itself

People get scared if they think the business is in trouble or if they hear rumours of redundancies or if managers are bemoaning sales figures and cutting costs left, right and centre.  Employers need to understand that staff are far more aware than you give them credit for, and if you are exhibiting the signs of a business in trouble, expect the resignation letters to come thick and fast.  People WILL leave before the writing hits the wall.

The employer's unwillingness to demonstrate flexibility

This wasn’t mentioned in the Business Insider article at all, but it's a big issue with employees. Traditionally, flexibility has focused on women returning to the workforce, but the desire for flexible employment has broadened considerably.  Employees wanting the flexibility to work part time so they can undertake study, employees wanting the option to work from home or from different offices, and the person who wants to take extended leave to travel. Sometimes an employer just cannot offer what the employee is asking for, and that is perfectly reasonable, but if enough people are asking for the same thing, at some point someone needs to start listening. I think exit interviews offer incredible insight into the day to day workings (good and horribly bad) of an organisation.  I don't think that there is any value in suggesting that employees should not be open and honest in their exit interview.  Because it is only with honesty and insight that an employer will have the knowledge to move forward and fix problem areas or change their employment and retention strategies.