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The job exit interview: Is it OK to let loose?

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The exit interview is a standard part of most employee off-boarding processes, and it's designed to benefit the company. The meeting is an opportunity for the employer to gain workplace insights from a departing worker who may feel like they have nothing to lose by being completely open about their experience.

But workers should consider how blunt they are with their feedback, even when they are on their way out the door. While in the moment it may feel good to vent, trashing a manager or colleague could backfire later on.

In other words, experts advise workers not to treat the exit interview like a therapy session, and instead to remain professional until the very end.

Read on for exit interview dos and don'ts.

HR is not your therapist

Avoid the mistake of treating an exit interview like a therapy appointment, or as a place to vent about what you might not have liked about the company. 

"Definitely it shouldn't be a venting session, you save that for your therapist," said Yolanda Owens, a career coach with job and career site The Muse. 

Exit interviews are typically designed to benefit the company, versus the employee who is leaving. It's an employer's last chance to mine a worker for feedback and information it could use to improve company culture or recruit future hires, for example.

If a worker had a serious issue or grievance, a complaint would usually have been made to human resources before announcing their departure. 

"Giving constructive, nonemotional feedback is what's best. If possible, focus on what you learned and not everything that the company is doing wrong," Owens said. 

Certainly, workers might feel more comfortable sharing what irked them about an old job when they have a new place to land, versus when they were employed. 

"It's an opportunity for an employee to share things and say things they were concerned about sharing before," said Barbara Holland, and adviser for the Society for Human Resource Management.

Companies value data

So what kind of information is most relevant to an employer as a worker departs? 

For one, companies want to know why a worker is leaving, and what specifically lured them away. 

"It's a place where workers can provide some competitive data, especially if you're leaving the company based on salary or benefits. HR loves that kind of information. If you can give them that kind of feedback, that's more actionable than saying something emotional or talking about a he-said, she-said situation," The Muse's Owens said.

They also want to know how and where they fell short. 

Companies usually keep this kind of data anonymous and aggregate it to look for trends. 

"HR looks for things that they can do better as an organization, or things it hasn't communicated well," SHRM's Holland said.

Tell your employer about your relationship with your manager or how you felt about the company's culture, career expert Brooks Scott advised. 

"They can use that to do things differently for new employees. For the company, it's about figuring out retention tactics," he added. "They're mining the departing employee for information that they can use to potentially make their organization better."

Boomerang employees

Remain professional at all times, and don't burn bridges, no matter how tempting it might be to air all your workplace grievances at once, career experts advise. 

"It's a small world. Don't go in and lose your temper," said career coach Lynn Berger.

Many industries are small, and you may someday want to return to the company you're leaving. 

"We want to leave a good last impression because you never know, you may need to work with these people again in the future, so it's always good to leave a good last impression," The Muse's Owens added. "You want to leave a good lasting impression because there could be an opportunity to come back again in some other capacity that may become available to you."

OK to refuse?

Exit interviews are seldom mandatory, and a departing employee can opt out if they don't feel comfortable meeting. 

"It's OK to refuse an exit interview or not to answer questions. If you don't feel comfortable or like you're in a good mental space to answer questions about the company, then don't," Owens said. 

It's safer than saying something that could hurt your chances of being rehired.

"If you say something that's not very flattering, they could take it the wrong way and blacklist you later on. So you want to steer clear off doing that," she said. 

Scott reiterated that it's up to the employee whether or not to participate. 

"Workers have to be honest with themselves about where they are mentally," he said. "Sometimes, it's not worth it to go back and rehash things."

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