EXIT by Peter MerholzChanging employers can be a stressful or exciting experience depending on why you’re leaving one homestead for another. Despite the reality that the days of working for the same company from graduation to retirement are long gone, many businesses no longer administer an exit interview.

And others — surprisingly — do.

The exit interview can be a tricky situation to navigate if you’re the type of person who believes that honesty and integrity aren’t simply buzzwords for marketing campaigns. Yet, if you talk to some world-weary members of the workforce, the best course of actions is to smile, share only positive feedback, and DON’T BURN BRIDGES.

I’ve had so many people warn me about burning bridges over the years, I’m beginning to wonder if everyone thinks I’m a closet arsonist. Well, I firmly believe that it’s possible to be honest and critical about your soon-to-be-former-employer without setting anything aflame.

Sure, I’ve had exit interviews where I played along just to get out of the door and move on with my life. But I’ve also had exit interviews where I offered sincere constructive criticism on how the company may improve itself and detailed where I felt they went wrong regarding my tenure. And ladies and gentlemen, I can tell you the latter was not only the more gratifying experience, it was also the most respectful.

No one may throw you a parade for telling your boss’ boss how to do business, but any company worth their salt will at least listen and learn when an employee decides to jump ship. As long as you’re not attempting to bolster your self-esteem or tear down the business, most employers won’t bat an eye at your honesty. And due to a number of labor laws and “at-will” policies in the U.S., many companies aren’t legally allowed to retaliate for any statements you make during the exit interview.

Although I’m not entirely convinced that living in fear of permanent unemployment and corporate persecution is healthy, I understand that fear and the privilege of telling your HR manager why you’re honestly leaving is not something we all can afford. But I believe those instances are rare.

Companies would like to know whether or not an employee’s departure could be controlled or changed. Losing employees to competitors for reasons beyond your control (higher salary, relocation, lifestyle changes) are a fact of life in the business world. Yet the reality is most employees leave for reasons well within our current employer’s control.

Although it may sound naive, I believe any corporation who hopes to stay in business in the 21st century needs to hear both the good and bad about employee retention. A higher turnover due to lack of advancement opportunities, personality conflicts, poor work/life balance initiatives, discrimination, harassment or managerial malfeasance can be avoided. And if an employee tenders their resignation for such reasons, I don’t view it as an act of “bridge burning” to make that information clear to the HR department.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Candace, what if I need a reference in the future?” This answer may seem obvious, but why not request a reference from someone at the company whom you know will find your truthful and perhaps less-than-glowing review resonating, honest and fair? Why would you want to request a reference from someone responsible for your exit anyway? Wouldn’t you worry about what he or she may say, even if you gave only positive feedback in your exit interview?

Or maybe it’s a simple case where you’re worried your new position may not work out and you’ll find yourself back at your old digs asking for your red stapler and cubicle? But if such a scenario happens, wouldn’t you want to return to a company better than the one you left? Why help maintain a situation that led to your decision to move on?

Magnolia by Daniel OinesIn the end, only you can decide what’s best for you. However, the exit interview is a honorable practice that soon-to-be-former employees can embrace instead of fear. Corporate culture isn’t what it once was, but I don’t believe the exit interview is a sword intended to hang over our heads as a guarantee we’ll only smile and nod should anyone ask if we liked working for our last employer.

We need to stop equating “burned bridges” with honesty and constructive criticism. You can respectfully offer advice and cite rational reasons for your departure that may not cast your employer in a favorable light, but doesn’t alienate your standing with your former boss and colleagues. And ultimately, maintaining your integrity without appearing bitter, angry or disrespectful is the only way to truly exit with grace.

How do you handle an exit interview?
Do you think constructive criticism mars your chances at a good recommendation?