How to Manage an Exit Interview

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You've just gotten that tap on the shoulder. You walk into an office to face the human resources officer, who gives you the proverbial pink slip. Your emotions are high. Suddenly, you start telling the HR rep everything the company is doing wrong. You might even spill the beans on what other co-workers are doing. But before you let loose, take a moment to breathe and think: Even now, as you're heading for the door, what you say and how you say it is important. Here's what some recruiters tell me:

Andrea Kay, author and career consultant: "Many companies will ask for input from exiting workers about issues, problems or things that might be improved. This can be useful feedback to the company. So if asked, find a way to share in the manner in which it is intended - to be helpful. Taking the high road in these situations can make you feel good about how you handled yourself. Even if you are not asked, you can say 'Would you like some feedback that might be helpful for others who still work in this department, or on this project?' Either way, it's best not to burn bridges. So how you communicate is really, really important. You never know about the future and when your paths will cross again."

Bettina Seidman, principal at New York-based Seidbet Associates: "Don't vent. Always keep in mind that this is your employer/former employer. You are going to need a reference at some point in the future. In an exit interview, talk about how much you enjoyed working for the company and how much you learned. Also, keep in mind that an exit interview is not required. You can pass on it. Talk about your feelings to close friends and outplacement coaches or career counselors. It is important to talk to people who will support you. But don't confuse your emotional feelings after a job loss with critical business communication skills."

Kevin Jenkins: an IT recruiter with the Los Angeles-based Tech-Source, Inc.: "An exit interview is not the time or the place to consult management. If they were interested in hearing what you had to say, the meeting would be called a 'performance review' and not an 'exit interview.' The reality is that exit interviews happen because companies simply have no choice due to financial constraints, or they're using the recession as an excuse to jettison you so they can replace you with somebody they believe represents an upgrade. In either case, what you think really doesn't matter. Make the process easy on the interviewer and take a good reference out the door with you."

Bill Blackford, a senior recruiter at Manpower Professional in the Washington, D.C., area: "If you get laid off, do not take it personally. This is not the time for you to vent during an exit interview. You want to leave on good terms because these people will be your references for future employment. As difficult as it is getting let go from a job, you need to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and focus on the next steps."

Renee Whalen, district president for Robert Half Technology's Washington, D.C./Baltimore district: "Whatever your reason for leaving a job, it's in your best interest to take the high road, as your actions can have a deep impact on your future career prospects. The business world is surprisingly small, and you may cross paths with colleagues or managers again, or potential employers may reach out to these individuals during the reference check process. If you're offered an exit interview, take the opportunity to talk constructively about your experiences with the company.

"Many employers take the process very seriously, and use it for improving corporate culture as well as employee retention and recruitment strategies. Giving honest feedback is a good way to not only show your professionalism but also spark positive change in the organization. Finally, avoid using the time for personal venting - being diplomatic in every interaction you have with your manager and colleagues before leaving is smart since these individuals will likely be contacts for future opportunities."

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