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‘Should I Be Honest in My Exit Interview?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Boss,

I’ve gotten a job offer and put in my notice at my company, for which I’ve worked for ten years now. HR has contacted me, saying it will be doing an exit interview. I already know the format will be a list of questions rating the company from one to five on how they do things (like pay, communication, etc.), with the potential for comments to be passed along to management. 

I’ve only ever had one exit interview, over ten years ago, at my first “adult” job, and it was with the manager I had the most problems with, so I didn’t have enough confidence to tell them the truth about the issues and why I decided to leave.

With this current job, there’s no worrying about potential references blowback since the company I work with laid off all management that directly worked with me, and a ton of co-workers who would be useful references (I’m one of seven on a team that was 30 strong pre-layoffs, and which needs at least double our current number to function). My managers are all new, and we’ve spoken maybe 100 words since the last layoff, so they wouldn’t be valuable references in the future beyond “Yes, she worked here, I worked with her for three weeks, her previous manager said XYZ.”

My reasons for leaving are extensive, including being underpaid according to industry standards, horrible corporate decisions that punish staff and get us yelled at by clients constantly, removing medical benefits, constant layoffs (while also bragging days later about getting prime seats for massive sporting events for potential clients and sales staff), and forcing in-office work despite our contracts stating we would be remote (even pre-COVID).

I’m wondering if it’s worth speaking my mind and bringing up the issues that caused me to decide to leave (for a lower-paying job, no less!), or if I would be wasting my breath. Friends and family are all saying I need to speak up since anything I say may help my current co-workers. But the pessimist in me thinks nothing will change since it’s a big company and things have only gotten worse over the years, never better, even with complaints from staff and clients alike. 

Additionally, I know the remaining staff are all looking for jobs too and are ready to jump ship, so there might not even be any co-workers left if they all get job offers, which makes me wonder if it’s even worth speaking up about the issues I see.

It’s almost certainly not worth telling the truth in your exit interview.

The reasons you’re considering it are noble — after all, if there’s a chance that you can make things better for your co-workers by speaking up now that you have nothing to lose and when your feedback is being actively solicited, why shouldn’t you? And there’s also just the principle of it; you have profound concerns about how the company operates, and what better opportunity to share those than when they’re inviting your candid opinions?

The thing is, though, it’s highly unlikely to make any difference.

Companies that truly want to hear employees’ input will solicit that input while you’re still working there, not just once you’re walking out the door. Respect for employees’ opinions will be woven into the fabric of how they operate; they’ll make a point of making it safe for people to speak up, even when voicing criticism, and you’ll see changes result from workers’ feedback. When a company doesn’t operate that way, it’s telling you it doesn’t really value honest evaluation, and the exit interviews are more likely to be an exercise in bureaucracy than anything resembling meaningful dialogue. Your candid feedback is likely to go nowhere, and you might even be written off as disgruntled or someone with an ax to grind.

Plus, the issues you’re thinking about raising are deeply entrenched ones; they’re about the culture and leadership of the organization, and those don’t get solved unless someone at the top with actual authority is committed to investing significant energy into changing the culture (and even then, it often takes years or doesn’t work at all). It would be different if you were thinking of providing easily addressed feedback like “We need a more streamlined expense-approval system” or “The parking lot needs better signage” or even “Our salaries and benefits aren’t competitive for the field.” That last one might not be easily addressed, but it’s more in line with the kind of info companies are typically interested in collecting through exit interviews, especially if they hear it from multiple people.

That’s not to say that genuine change never results from exit interviews that delve into tougher or more substantive issues. Occasionally it does. But it’s rare enough that, as a general rule, you shouldn’t look at exit interviews as an effective avenue for driving culture change.

Moreover, while it can feel like being forthcoming in an exit interview is low risk since you’re leaving and can’t be penalized for what you say, that’s not always true in practice. When someone’s exit-interview feedback is particularly frank in an office where management bristles at unpleasant truths, it can burn bridges and affect what kind of references that person gets in the future. That doesn’t mean that an A+ reference will suddenly turn into an F, but it can affect the way you’re talked about when potential employers inquire about you. A reference that would have been glowingly enthusiastic can become significantly less so, and that matters.

Now, that’s less of a worry for you than it would be generally; since the managers who you’ll turn to for references in the future have already left, your chances of negative repercussions are lower. But that doesn’t insulate you entirely, because you don’t always get to choose your references. If a hiring manager happens to know someone at your old company personally, for example, they might call them to ask about you regardless of whether they’re listed as an official reference or not. So it’s still something to keep in mind as a possibility, even though it doesn’t carry as much risk as it could.

Despite all this, if you really feel strongly about speaking up, your best shot at making an impact is to pick one clear issue and give feedback on that. Choose something that you think has a realistic chance of being changed (so not “all the new managers suck” or “what’s with all the terrible decision-making?”) and focus on that as unemotionally as you can. It still might not get through to anyone, but it’ll have better odds than a long list of complaints would.

Beyond that, though, focus on moving on. You’ve found a new job, you’re escaping this bad one, and you no longer have a professional obligation to help this company find solutions to its problems.

Find even more career advice from Alison Green on her website, Ask a Manager. Got a question for her? Email

‘Should I Be Honest in My Exit Interview?’