Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Exit Interviews Are a Trap

I was leaving a job after a few years followed by several really bad months. My last day was Friday, and on Tuesday afternoon I got the calendar invite from my boss: “Exit Interview, Thursday 1pm”.

I did something that, in most cases, is a very bad idea: I went to that interview and told my boss exactly why I was leaving, and what I thought he could do to change things. I want to use this story to talk about exit interviews: why they are, generally speaking, a trap; how to handle them if you get asked to go to one; and, finally, why I chose to break my own rule.

Exit interviews are a trap

Say you’re leaving a job, and you have some criticism. Maybe your boss sucked. Maybe the working conditions were bad. Maybe your teammates were hard to work with. Maybe the food in the cafeteria is better on the other side of Sand Hill Road. Whatever: the details of the criticisms are unimportant; the question is, should you air them out at the exit interview?

Well, it’s time for some game theory1:

If you keep your mouth shut, nothing changes. Whatever departing impression your colleagues and bosses have of you, whatever references they may (or may not) give, stay unchanged. The company, too, stays unchanged.

What if you speak up? Total honesty, say what you think.

Let’s consider the upside: maybe the company changes! Probably not, though: whatever the criticism is, it’s highly unlikely it’s something new. People typically don’t quit over one-time problems; they quit over patterns. That obnoxious coworker, everyone knows he’s terrible, they’ve just chosen to avoid the problem rather than addressing it. Or they’ve tried and failed. It’s highly unlikely that your feedback will be the thing that finally moves the needle. Not impossible, it does happen, but it’s rare. And even if your feedback does finally start some change – it’s too late for you. You’re already out the door. The time to fix the problems was months ago, before you got fed up and started your job search.

So, the best case scenario is a very unlikely chance of a positive outcome, and even if you get that positive outcome, it’s of no direct value to you.

Now let’s consider the downside. What if what you say rubs someone the wrong way? Telling your boss exactly why he was a bad manager might not go over well. Maybe that coworker you want to complain about is actually the CEO’s nephew. Maybe HR knows all about the food and is sick and tired of hearing about it. There are all sorts of ways that your former employers might retaliate. They might decide not to give a reference they would have before the exit interview. They might say bad things about you at industry events. It might be more subtle: they might just carry a negative impression of you in the back of their minds, and when you both end up working together again in the future they’ll hesitate to trust you. Or it might be blatantly unethical or even illegal. They could tell you they’re fine to be a reference, but when someone calls they could say bad things. They could refuse to confirm your employment to a background investigator. They could call your new company and tell them you were fired for fraud.

These are all real stories: every single one of those hypotheticals is actually something I’ve seen happen. So, the worst-case scenario is… real bad! Potential job-ending or even career-limiting retaliation.

This is especially true for people early in their careers. If you burn a reference, and this is your first job, it can be very hard to get a second. If you get badmouthed around the industry, and you don’t have an established professional network to refute the allegations, people will believe the lies.

This is why I say exit interviews are a trap. There’s no upside, and a lot of downside. The best case scenario (positive change) is highly unlikely, and even if it happens, of no direct value to you. And the worst case scenario is retaliation that could haunt you for years. If we could calculate an “expected average outcome”, like an expected value of a bet, it’d be deeply negative. Nobody who knows the odds would take this bet.

So how should I handle an exit interview request?

Despite this, exit interviews are exceedingly normal. If you leave a job, you can expect to be asked to sit for one by your boss, a skip-level boss, HR, or maybe all three. What then?

Here’s what I recommend:

  • Avoid the meeting if possible. Don’t go if you think you can get away with it. You can certainly refuse to go (you already quit; what are they going to do about it?2) but sometimes outright refusal will feel too hostile. You can also run out the clock: keep having last-minute conflicts and reschedule until your last day, then discover you have too much to do that last day to make time, so sorry.
  • If you must go – if you get cornered, if you feel declining or avoiding will come across poorly and risk burning a bridge – be totally bland. Why are you leaving? You found a great opportunity elsewhere and had to take it. Do you have any feedback? Nothing comes to mind. What could they have done to keep you? Oh, it’s not about leaving them, it’s about joining the new place.

    If asked for feedback about someone specific, here’s a phrase you can use: “I have nothing bad to say about them”. This has the advantage of being true: even if this is someone you can’t stand, you have nothing bad to say about them. You’re signaling that even if you have things you think, you’re not going to say them. You need to practice saying this in a breezy, friendly, upbeat tone: don’t play tricks; don’t wink.

  • Lie if you must. Usually I’d say dishonesty at work is unethical, but there are situations where it’s not; this is one of them. (I’ll have more to say about honesty at work in my next post; stay tuned). I don’t recommend outright lies: saying you love your manager when they’re the reason you’re leaving helps them continue to hide bad behavior. I recommend instead something simple and bland like saying “nothing comes to mind” or “hm I haven’t really thought about it, not sure.”

  • Let it be awkward. If HR has a 20 question script and you’re answering every question with “nothing comes to mind”, it’s going to be weird. That’s not your fault: it’s weird because exit interviews themselves are weird. Be prepared for the awkwardness, and stick to the plan.

Why I broke my own rules

Now that I’ve explained why exit interviews are a trap, why did I decide to ignore my own rules?

There are several reasons why people might want to air their grievances at an exit interview:

  • They haven’t really thought about it strategically: they just sort of go in without a plan and answer questions like they would at any other meeting.
  • Catharsis: they’ve been wanting to say the thing, and now that they’re leaving they finally feel like they can. Or, they’ve been saying it all along, but now they think they’ll finally be heard.
  • They believe their feedback will lead to change. They want to improve things for their colleagues who are staying, for whoever replaces them. They genuinely want the company to do better! Their compassion leads them to overestimate the likelihood of this change, and underestimate the potential cost of speaking up.

My motivation was that last one. I was leaving a team behind, and I was worried about how things would go for them after I left. I genuinely liked most of my coworkers, even the ones I thought that were making the wrong moves, and wanted better things for them. And, yeah I did overestimate the likelihood that my parting feedback would make a difference.

However, even with all of that, I would have stuck to my “say nothing” guns if not for another factor: I didn’t think I had any downside risk. Let me explain:

  • I’m well-established in my career. I have over 20 years of experience, which means that any one former employer has limited power over my career. I don’t need the reference; I have plenty. I don’t need to emphasize any particular job on my resume; I have others.

  • I have a very strong professional network. People know me, know the kind of person and co-worker I am. If someone were to badmouth me, it almost certainly wouldn’t work: lies would be fairly obvious. Any attempt to sabotage me would likely backfire.

  • I’m financially stable, and had my next job already lined up. I wasn’t going to have a gap in employment, and even if I did, I have the savings to withstand it. The worst-case scenarios aren’t very bad.

  • Finally, and most importantly: I knew my boss and co-workers very well, everyone in a position to react to my feedback, and had a lot of trust they’d take feedback professionally. We had a workplace high in psychological safety. I’d given critical feedback before, many times, and had never experienced defensiveness, retaliation, or any other sort of negative outcome. Further, I knew they’d listen to me, and consider my feedback carefully. Even when we’d disagreed, I’d always felt my feedback was heard and considered.

So by my calculation, there was no real downside to speaking up. The sort of scary retaliation scenarios were deeply unlikely, and even if they happened, I have the professional standing such that they’re not a threat. This makes the average expected outcome of speaking up slightly positive: there’s a small chance I’ll improve things for the folks still working there, and no real downside risk.

So what happened?

As you know from reading my blog, I’m very convincing. My soon-to-be-former boss listened to everything I had to say, and immediately made the changes I was suggesting, and the company is doing very well now.

Er, no. Not at all.

My boss thanked me for my feedback, and nothing changed. Several other folks quit over the next few months. Last I checked, the organization was still very much headed in the direction that I disagreed with.

Like most people, I was wrong about the likelihood of an exit interview truth bomb leading to change. I’m glad to say my trust was well-placed: my former boss and co-workers continue to say nice things about me.

I think I made the right choice, but it’s still not the decision I recommend. Exit interviews are a trap. Unless you know you’re immune, don’t walk into the trap.

  1. Sorry. ↩︎

  2. Occasionally, unethical HR people will threaten to withhold a final paycheck or other benefits if you don’t participate in the exit interview. This is illegal (in the US, at least). ↩︎