Tech & Work

How do I handle an exit interview?

This week, career coach Karen Childress answers readers' questions about exit interviews and returning to traditional employment after working as a consultant.


Let professional business coach Karen Childress help answer your career questions. Karen will be sharing hints and tips on a host of career issues in this Q&A format.

Q: I recently left a wonderful position due to my manager. While I agree with your advice about not badmouthing an old boss to anyone at the new job, I am curious as to what I should have said, or not said, during my exit interview. I remember the adage about if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything, so, I didn’t tell the truth of why I left a job I liked.

I was there for over two years in the IT department. I did the usual, closer to home, job advancement, etc. I felt that after seven years and a 100 percent employee turnover that HR would see the pattern with this manager. Should I have told the truth?—LVS

Q: With reference to your recent answer to a question from Bill about whether he should tell the truth about why he was leaving the company (his boss), you said not to say a negative word about his boss after he leaves or in interviews. In another sense, many companies have exit interviews to ask employees why they are leaving the company. Many people don’t want to burn their bridges, so they give vague answers such as “it is time for a change,” and the real reasons are not revealed.

My question, then, is, “Should Bill tell the real reason for leaving during the exit interview?” And then, is your answer different for Bill because his boss is the CEO vs. the answer for Betty, whose boss is a lower-level supervisor, manager, or director?—Bill, too

A: Both of you raise an excellent point. My advice to Bill was not to say anything negative about his boss to a future employer—that’s just poor form. But providing reasons for leaving during an exit interview is a slightly different matter in that companies with a formal exit interview process want to know an employee’s thinking upon departure.

In this situation I’d recommend being honest and yet diplomatic. For example, you could say “It became clear that my style and that of my manager was never going to be a good match,” as opposed to “I’d rather remove my own wisdom teeth than work another day for that dimwit.”

See the difference?

If the reason for leaving is a difficult CEO, there is probably not a whole lot that will change based on exit interview comments unless somehow this information is funneled to the board of directors.

No matter the position of the person, I’d recommend always being professional with whatever comments are made during an exit interview, because you never know when you might find yourself working with that person again at another company. It’s a small world.

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Are you an IT manager with a career question for Karen Childress? Send Karen a letter about a problem you're facing on the job or ask a question about your next career move.

Q: Karen, I just read your article concerning individuals in the industry who are curious about pursuing consulting as a personal/career growth vehicle. In the article you pointed out that: “A red flag to future employers—since you plan to climb the management ladder—would be if you went out on your own as a consultant and subsequently tried to reenter the corporate world. They’d wonder if you would be a team player, if you’d failed as a consultant, or if ‘consultant’ had been just a nice way of saying ‘unemployed’ until you’d arrived on their doorstep.”

I spent 10 years in the industry prior to venturing out as a consultant. When I decided to become a consultant four years ago, my intent was to do exactly what you pointed out in your article: Gain exposure to different management methodologies, a broader scope of manufacturing industries, and ultimately obtain a more well-rounded perspective.

My target was to do this for five years and then go back to a “real job” (for lack of a better term!). My concern is that perception you raised about independent consultants. I would hope that companies would view this on more of a case-by-case basis. I consider myself to be a team player and hope this is not too much of a sticking point when applying for an industry position. Do you have any advice on how I can avoid this issue, or at least put a potential employer’s fears to rest should this be a problem?—Martin

A: Tell a potential employer exactly what you said in your question—that your career path from corporate to consulting and back to corporate was intentional—by design, rather than by default. Play up all of the great things you learned as a consultant and emphasize how your experiences out in the field will benefit your new company.

You might even go so far as to present, along with the standard resume, a summary of the projects you worked on as a consultant showcasing the value you brought to those projects.

Also be sure to mention all of the industry contacts you’ve made over the past few years. A fat Rolodex is an asset. If you tell your story in a compelling way and stress the positive, you should be fine.

Karen Childress is the founder and president of ihavegoals.com. She is an entrepreneur, management consultant, and certified as a professional business coach by the Hudson Institute. A frequent presenter, she delivers keynotes and workshops to groups of 20 to 200.

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