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No. 20 – How honest should I be in an exit interview?

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14 July 2021

Each week, Dr Kirstin Ferguson tackles questions on the workplace, career and leadership in her advice column “Got a minute?” This week, honesty in an exit interview, dealing with workplace abuse, and keeping up the pace in a reduced workforce.

I have resigned from my current job and I am just finishing up my notice period. My employer wants me to do an exit interview to understand why I want to leave since there have been a lot of people leaving lately. I am wondering how honest I should be – would you tell them how toxic the workplace is or be a bit more diplomatic?

In theory, an exit interview is a great idea and should, of course, be a fabulous way to help the company you are leaving improve. But that rarely happens in practice, so my advice is never burn bridges. There is very little to be gained.

An exit interview is too little, too late. My guess is that if you had felt able to speak up about the toxic work environment you would have done so well before now and not needed to wait until you are walking out the door.

Sadly, there are no guarantees any action will come from anything you share in an exit interview and while it might feel good to get it off your chest, it is probably going to be unhelpful for you on a personal level. Exit interviews are not always treated confidentially (they should be) and the information may end up affecting your reputation and make it harder to get a reference from the company you are leaving. I would pass on anything you feel comfortable to pass on but otherwise focus on the future and your new opportunity.

I have just read Julia Banks′ story about her time in politics and how she felt bullied by her boss during phone calls. This happens to me all the time, especially since we are now working from home. My boss rings abusing me and swearing at me about things he is not happy with. Because no one else hears our calls, I feel no one would believe me if I reported him. Speaking up about it seems impossible since I am sure he would just deny it. What do you recommend?

I know first-hand how hard it is, but if you can find the courage to do so, do try and speak up. I truly believe times have changed since #MeToo and since Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ landmark Respect@Work report was published.

Never forget that you do not have to put up with what you are dealing with. It is never OK for someone to speak to you like this. If you don’t feel you can formally report him, then perhaps find someone you really trust at work to talk with so you can come up with a strategy together. It is also possible that you are not the only one he is treating this way and joining with others experiencing the same will make you a powerful force.

Think about confronting your boss directly and next time he is abusing you, ask him to put it in an email. He is undoubtedly a coward and won’t dare put in writing what he might say to you in person. Take care of yourself and know that I believe you and others will too.

I’m a senior manager and prior to COVID-19 my team was already significantly under-resourced. When the pandemic hit, we had to cut 20 per cent of our workforce while the remaining team rose to the challenge. However, after a year we’re all getting pretty tired and burnt out. Our CEO has said that we cannot hire any more team members and I’m at a point now where I don’t think I can keep going at this pace. I’m worried that crucial team members will soon resign. What should I do?

Your situation is one I have heard so many times this year. It sounds like you and your team really stepped up at the start of the pandemic and understood why you needed to work harder and longer just to keep the business going during a crisis. Many organisations announced large workforce cuts during 2020 and I wonder how many of them are now assessing the issues these have created for the employees left to carry the load.

Have you tried talking to your boss to understand why they are so resistant to hiring more team members? Is it because the business is still struggling with the uncertainty of COVID-19 or are they just happy to be spending less on employee wages? Either way, it is clearly not sustainable, and your boss needs to hear that. Your boss also needs to appreciate that high turnover of key staff is going to cost the business a lot more in the long run.

Send your questions about work, careers and leadership to Your name and any identifying information will not be used. Letters may be edited.

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