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Before You Jump, Let's Talk

In Exit Interviews, Be Candid, Focused And Professional

By Sarah Abruzzese
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page K01

Sure, we all want to end our relationships gracefully. But when you're jumping from a job, the farewell can seem a bit more perilous.

Most exit interviews have multiple parts, said Karen Usher, chief executive of TPO Inc., a McLean company that runs human resources functions, mostly for small companies. The first covers benefits to which you might be entitled; after that, many companies do a wider-ranging interview that allows feedback on all sorts of topics from the departing employee.

Know What to Ask and What to Share

If you have an exit interview scheduled, come prepared.

• Have a list of benefit questions. Are you covered by COBRA, the health insurance extension program? How long does your life insurance last? Will you be paid for unused vacation time?

• List the other major points you want to make, perhaps about operations or procedures.

• Keep your cool.

"No matter what, you should attend the first part of your exit interview, the benefits part," Usher said. "Although your company can send you the information in writing, you do yourself a disservice by ignoring the opportunity for someone in human resources to explain your benefits package. By law the company must provide this information to you."

This is often followed by an interview in which you'll be asked why you're leaving and what your impressions of the company are.

Such interviews help organizations, said Catherine Guttman-McCabe, a consultant in the Washington office of Employment Practices Solutions Inc., which provides employment consulting to employers. "Employers generally use [exit interviews] so they can get candid information about the workplace. . . . A person could even say [an] exit interview should be anonymous. Generally a person is not identified. Companies compile the information and decisions are made with aggregate data, looking at trends."

In theory, that's fine, but many departing employees find it tricky. The big decision, Usher said, is deciding how forthright to be. "If I say something negative, will it impact my references down the pike?"

There are several points to keep in mind, said Rhonda K. Reger, associate professor of strategic management at the University of Maryland.

"If you give them a litany of complaints, you aren't really going to be listened to," Reger said. "There are a couple of negative things that could happen. One is many companies, even if they are called for recommendation, will only give years of employment. But on the other hand they might, especially if it is an informal situation on the telephone, say something negative," she said.

"Two, many times people return to a company after they have left and you always want to leave the door [open] to the possibility you might return," Reger said. "Three, there are always mergers and acquisitions that occur, and you may be working for that company again involuntarily and you really don't want to have left a bad taste in that situation."

Guttman-McCabe said, "Conduct yourself in a professional manner in an exit interview; they should not make it personal. If you want to be heard, have a calm and professional demeanor."

Usher recommends coming with only a few key thoughts to impart. "Don't waste time on stuff construed to be picky or information overload," she said. "Always reserve the option to shut up and stop."

If you have been laid off, Reger said, you are likely to be asked how you were treated and whether outplacement services helped. "If you were involuntarily terminated, i.e. fired, they may ask you questions like, 'Did you feel like the situation was handled equitably?' . . . That is both because they want to improve but also because they want to make sure you don't have any grounds for litigation."

If you have been fired or are leaving under negative circumstance, "don't regurgitate all the hard feelings in the exit interview," Usher said. But that "doesn't mean you can't provide constructive feedback or have your say."

Before Jeffrey Murray, 34, moved to Washington, he quit his job on an offshore drilling vessel. He said he created his own exit interview. "I wrote resignation letters that I hand-delivered to personnel, the head of my department, the manager and assistant manager of the vessel," Murray said. "I outlined why I was leaving, made personal contact with each to make sure they knew what a difficult decision it was."

Murray said he didn't hold back. "My result was the company took a look at the operations and within my specific niche and realized they had to do something different," he said.

It's important, he said, "to tell them why you are leaving."

He said, "Especially let management know if a supervisor is making your situation difficult. . . . You need to let everyone know."

Whatever the mechanism, the mental approach should be the same, Reger said. "You should have a plan before you go in there and decide that you are going to be as nonemotional as possible. Sometimes it is a very high-emotion time and it is hard to do. But if you have thought this out in advance it is easier."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company