Three years ago, when Howard Boles opted to leave Kronos for a more lucrative position at Lucent Technologies, an HR person spent about 15 minutes with the exiting senior software engineer tying up loose ends. “It didn’t take very long,” recalled Boles. “She just asked me a couple of questions about why I was leaving and where I was going.”

Boles, in an effort to be forthright, mentioned that his new employer was offering a substantial salary increase and was offering a position that played more to his strengths—bug fixing rather than product development. The HR rep conceded that Kronos couldn’t match the percentage increase and simply wished Boles the best of luck in his new position as a Lucent senior engineer.

Twenty-eight months later, Boles became a downsizing statistic as the once-thriving telecom vendor fell on hard times. While the Lucent layoff-notice interview was actually shorter than the Kronos exit interview—it lasted less than five minutes—the HR department spent much more time reviewing severance package and benefits issues. “Lucent had laid off over 70,000 people over a two-year period, so HR had the procedure down to a science,” noted Boles.

While Boles appreciated Lucent’s benefits overview, he didn’t get the opportunity to provide feedback on his time spent working for the telecom. He also didn’t have a chance to strengthen contacts that could prove handy if new job opportunities cropped up in the future. Both potential opportunities can prove valuable to an employee’s future career.

For employees, the exit interview provides “a chance to keep the door open, because every career move is another step up the ladder. Your next promotion might be returning to the company you’re now leaving,” explained Marc Lewis, president of Morgan Howard, a global executive search firm based in Stamford, CT.

The flip side

To find out more about how to prepare for and get the most from an exit interview when you’re the one conducting the interview, check out “Don’t let staff leave without an exit interview.”

Proper conduct during the exit interview
Once you’ve given notice or have been told that you’re being laid off, you should request a formal exit interview if one isn’t set up for the final day of employment. In order to make the most of the exit interview, it’s a good idea to prepare for the final conversation.

Paul Glen, certified management consultant for Los Angeles-based C2 Consulting, suggested that exiting employees follow these tips:

  • Don’t vent.
  • Stay factual.
  • Keep it brief.

“Exit interviews are not a forum for catharsis,” Glen said. If you want to share your true feelings about the company, the job, and your boss, Glen recommends that you share it with your significant other or friends—not the person conducting the interview or any soon-to-be former colleagues.

ArLyne Diamond, a professional development consultant, said exiting employees should use the venue as an opportunity to learn some things that will benefit them on their next job. Exiting employees should use the opportunity to ask for constructive criticism. For example, you could ask:

  • What do you see as some of my shortcomings?
  • What could I have done better?
  • In what areas do you recommend that I improve?

Diamond said that employers can surprise employees with their candor if employees phrase the question as a genuine request for advice.

Damian Birkel, founder of the nonprofit support group Professionals in Transition, noted that exiting employees should also use the exit interview process to grab vital career documentation that could help them land another job. Specifically, he said to be sure to pack:

  • Samples of your best work.
  • Letters of praise you’ve received from customers, clients, and management.
  • Performance evaluations.

Dos and don’ts
Birkel offered this short checklist of dos and don’ts to ensure that an exiting interview works in your favor when seeking that next job:

  • DO thank the company and the interviewer. That last impression is every bit as critical as the initial impression that got you hired in the first place.
  • DO send a thank-you note as soon as you leave. It documents your appreciation and clarifies any key points you discussed.
  • DON’T trash the company at your exit interview. Your insights might be true, but why burn down a relationship bridge that you may need to cross again in the future?
  • DON’T blast your boss before, during, or after your exit interview. The negative comments will follow you and could poison your chances in upcoming job interviews.
  • DON’T forget that while you may be leaving, the company still has a piece of your financial future. You don’t want to do anything to jeopardize how quickly you receive your final pay after your last day. So it’s in your best interest to leave in a positive and proactive manner.

According to Morgan Howard’s Lewis, departing employees should avoid dwelling on negative topics such as downsizing or across-the-board salary reductions. Lewis suggests always putting a positive spin on the exit interview, approaching it as a chance to help your former boss. The goal is to focus on constructive ways to improve the position or the department or the company, and emphasize that the company provided a great foundation on which to build the rest of your career.

Finally, don’t boast about all your accomplishments in the job. “If your former employer were that impressed,” said Lewis, “it’d have made you a counteroffer that would have convinced you to stay.”