In most companies, you're given an "exit interview" on your last day. The interviewer (typically somebody from human resources) asks 1) Why are you leaving? and 2) Do you have suggestions to make this company a better place to work?

These questions imply that your current employer 1) sincerely regrets that you're leaving and 2) wants to fix any problems that might have caused you to leave. But that's not what's really going on.

You may be tempted to respond to these questions with some cogent reasons and heartfelt suggestions. You may even be tempted to vent about your boss or some other corporate blister. But resist those temptations, because:

1. HR doesn't have the power to change the company.

HR personnel--even those with fancy titles--are low-level employees who lack the clout to drive change. Even if you could provide HR with a sure-fire blueprint for massively improving the company, they wouldn't be able to do anything with it. So, sharing your ideas with HR (much less venting) is just wasting your time.

2. HR does have the power to damage your career.

Contrary to popular belief, HR's job is not to make things better for employees. Beyond clerical stuff like payroll, HR's primary job is to manage risk and provide plausible deniability.

To illustrate this, look at HR's role when an employee is sexually harassed. (Bear with me because the two situations are quite similar.)

When an employee tells HR that, say, a top executive is a sexual harasser, it never results in the harasser being fired or even disciplined. Instead, it usually results in two things:

  1. The whistleblower gets fired, moved to a position where they'll want to quit, or told (not in so many words) to "shut up about this or you'll never work in this town again." #MeToo hasn't changed this dynamic except for women who are relatively rich and powerful.
  2. HR hosts "sexual harassment training" that cannot possibly change a corporate culture that tolerates sexual harassment, but which give the company cover should it be sued (as in "We're 100 percent committed to a safe work environment, as shown by putting all employees through sexual harassment training.").

Exit interviews are similar. HR isn't asking these questions because they want to improve the company; they're asking because they want to know whether you're going to be a PR problem after you leave.

Let's suppose you answer those exit questions with some complaints and suggestions. Best case--BEST CASE--you'll end up with a "don't rehire" note in your employee file. Worst case, you could scuttle your future ability to use your former employer as a job reference.

Actually, though, that's not the worst case. Suppose you have a horrible boss and you vent about him to HR. HR might tell your boss what you said, and since your boss is an SOB, he might badmouth you to your future employer. Maybe even get the job offer withdrawn. At the very least, by complaining to HR, you've made a new enemy.

In short, when asked during an exit interview why you're leaving and what the company could do better, there is only downside to being honest. Your best--indeed your only sensible--move, is to express 1) how sad you are to leave, 2) how happy you've been working there, 3) how much you've learned, 4) how grateful you are for the opportunity, and 5) what a difficult decision it's been to leave.

The big takeaway

The advice above is a specific case of a general and crucially important rule of career development, a rule you should commit to memory and follow as if it were an 11th commandment.

That rule is: "Never burn your bridges."

Published on: Aug 5, 2019
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