Workplace Doctor: how honest should I be in an exit interview?

I’m switching jobs and have been asked to carry out an exit interview. While I have really enjoyed my role, there are a number of niggles in the company that need addressing. But how honest should you be in an exit interview? After all, I may want to return to the company in the future, so I don’t want to burn my bridges. MJ, Sharjah

First of all congratulations, you are leaving for pastures new and although there are some problems you may feel need addressing, keep front of mind that this is the final impression you leave with your previous employer. Your gut might urge you to shout, “I’m outta here!” and bare your soul; but what starts out as a minor point could easily be magnified into a real issue once the gloves are off.

As someone who has generally enjoyed their role, with just a few glitches along the way, you should keep your feedback balanced, considered and to the point. This is not simply because you do not want to burn your bridges, but because you sound thankful for the organisation’s contributions towards your development, and it could be equally helpful to them if you share some of your positive experiences.

It is likely you will be speaking with HR and your previous line manager; remember your reputation and personal brand will travel with you wherever you go. Keep in mind that the UAE marketplace is a relatively small one, and bad news can travel faster than the speed of light. I have even heard of cases where an individual has been a little too candid during an exit interview and their new employer has heard about the bad impression they left. While I’m sure you aren’t planning to go out with a bang, it is worth remembering that you do not want the last bad impression of one employer to be the first of another.

So what is the best course of action? Vent any emotional frustrations ahead of time, not during the interview, and speak to someone you trust in the organisation or a neutral third party to get their feedback on what you plan to say. Use their perspective to consider what you feel the organisation will willingly ‘hear’, and what is a step too far. Remember you are moving on, but your legacy and your co-workers will remain behind you.

Plan and prepare for the session and treat the exit interview as conscientiously as you would an interview for a new job. In addition to working through your emotions in advance, speak to someone to gain a perspective on the structure and focus of the conversation you would like to have. The exit interview is also an opportunity for you to ask some questions, find out about the reasons behind some decisions and explore the organisation – after all, you say you might be interested in going back one day.

You should also ask yourself what your motivation is when sharing your perspective on some of the things the company needs to address. If you are speaking out in service of the next person taking on the job, or for the benefit of the broader organisation, then go ahead. If you think you are more motivated by self-interest, or simply want to tell people what you think of them, think through the consequences before you act. Decide what your goal is for the conversation – perhaps you want to raise awareness of a colleague’s contribution, or highlight a particular work stream – so tailor your approach accordingly.

If you care about the company and want to make a difference, make sure your comments are fact-based, professional and actionable. Be sure to only suggest changes that are realistic and attainable. Share what you have learnt and why both you and the company have benefited from your time there.

Doctor’s Prescription: This exit interview is just one page in your career portfolio, but let it be a positive one. Exciting times lie ahead and thinking about the best way to approach this should carry you through your last days with the business. Plan and prepare for your exit interview, and really think about the goals you have for your final conversation with management. Keeping emotions separate should stop you burning any bridges for the future, but doesn’t prevent you from sharing the honest feedback many businesses find useful.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and consultant at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues.

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