Exit Interview Advice: Keep Your Mouth Shut!

Beecher Tuttle | E-Financial Careers

Bonus announcement season is approaching, and with it comes the realization of many in the industry that they are ready to move on. Typically, hundreds across Wall Street will saunter into the office of their boss and quit after receiving their bonus check, whether it be to take another job in banking or to leave the industry altogether.

If you are headed to a competitor, quitting day is often your last day in the office. “They let you go around and say goodbye to people and then down to HR for the exit interview,” said one recently departed investment banker. “Then you get to go on gardening leave and get 4-plus weeks of paid time off so you don’t take any insider info with you.”

Sounds simple enough, but the exit interview aspect of the quitting process is often overlooked. Quite frankly, as it’s with HR, many don’t treat it all that seriously as they should. Or, worse, they use it as an opportunity to air their personal grievances.

“It’s usually best to be constructive without making the complaints personal about a particular person or persons,” said Howard Seidel, a partner at Boston-based executive search firm Essex Partners. “No matter what you are told, assume that your feedback could get back to people.”

The key, says Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide, is to conduct a risk-reward assessment. What will you, over the long-term, get out of the process?

“I always discourage people from being critical in an exit interview – there’s just no benefit to addressing past injustices or setting the record straight,” he said. Calling out particular individuals – people who, whether you like it or not, will be your future references – is never a good idea, he stressed.

In fact, the only situation where complete honesty is in your best interest is if there is a mass exodus and something not particular to you is occurring. “The only exception is if many people are exiting, then you can explain why you are too,” he said. “That they will deem as helpful.”

Other tips for exit interviews: don’t tell HR where you are headed unless a garden leave clause comes into effect, Cohen said. There may be a non-compete involved, but they have become extremely non-enforceable for people at lower or mid-tier levels, he said.

And finally, if you are really not going to say much of anything at all, keep it positive. Cohen suggests talking about how hard of a decision quitting was, and that you are only leaving for a great opportunity. “It makes people feel good,” he said, and that can help keep your long-term reputation intact.

Frankly, it appears that many are already heeding this advice and not giving up much detail in the exit interview process. A recent study from Robert Waters found that employers need to improve their exit interview procedures to glean more valuable “insights about a company’s culture, operations and management to implement positive changes.” Nearly half (44%) of professionals surveyed felt that their exit interview process was “not worthwhile at all.”

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