Should I criticize my boss in my exit interview?
September 14, 2011 12:11 PM   Subscribe

Exit letter and should I treat the elephant in the incompetent boss?

asking for a friend: After working at BIGcompany for a year, I am leaving to relocate somewhere else and work for a family business. It's my second job out of college and I took it because I needed it. I am a programmer and I am the only woman on my team. It has a lot of bureaucracy, but basically my team has one boss who also has his own boss, a woman who I haven't ever even really talked to.

My direct boss is completely an idiot. He is a terrible leader who does everything wrong. I can't even believe he is employed. There is no "teamwork" on our team and efforts to bring it in have been quashed by him. As a result our output is an inconsistent mess. We spend time writing code and then realize someone else on the team has written code for the same thing already. We have team meetings every couple of months. People are constantly late or "working from home." Projects are always finished late. He's been on vacation for over a week now and put no one in charge and didn't even tell me. Things are falling apart...our clients are going crazy.

Then there is the issue that he has made me feel uncomfortable as a woman, making snide comments every so often that are sexist, sexual harassment, or both. I haven't said anything because I feel powerless...I can't afford to lose this job, even though I hate it, and I don't want a hostile work environment to add on to the chaos.

But thank God, now I'm free. I'm going for an exit interview with the lady boss and I don't know if I should be honest? My parents say no, that I might need a reference some day and that you should always quit nicely, but I'm not sure since I'm going to work in a different industry...
posted by idle to Work & Money (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah, don't go there. It's likely the lady boss already knows the guy is a problem. Tell them your new position offers you x, y and z new learning experiences and opportunities, wish them the best, and move on. Dishing on your boss will only make you look bad.
posted by LN at 12:17 PM on September 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Often there's an HR person who is assigned to a particular group - ask if you can have an exit interview with them. When I left a job with some pretty awful issues around leadership, that's who I talked to about it.
posted by milkrate at 12:18 PM on September 14, 2011

Then there is the issue that he has made me feel uncomfortable as a woman, making snide comments every so often that are sexist, sexual harassment, or both. I haven't said anything because I feel powerless...I can't afford to lose this job, even though I hate it, and I don't want a hostile work environment to add on to the chaos.

You should report his actions to HR. You should immediately approach his boss and bring this up and if she does not immediately go to HR (she is obligated by law to) then you need to. And they are obligated by law to investigate. if at that point there is ANY perceived attack on you, your standing, or anyone else then they are at a HUGE risk for a lawsuit.
posted by zombieApoc at 12:19 PM on September 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

In my experience, the higher-ups often don't want to hear about the incompetence of a boss. If it will make you feel better and it won't come back to haunt you, then do it. If you are doing it to improve the situation, I wouldn't because they will probably totally write you off.
posted by Foam Pants at 12:19 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would also type all of this up before-hand and hand it to her. And tell her you have also mailed a copy to their HR department.

My worry for you is that if you don't fight this now it will impact your self-image in the future and you will be less apt to stand up for yourself at another job.

People are put into leadership positions because they have either proven themselves to be qualified or have at least played a smoke and mirrors game of that, but if at any point they do not hold the respect of people under then they are no longer a real leader and they should be called out for it.
posted by zombieApoc at 12:22 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Say positive things about everyone else on your team except your boss. If the uberboss isn't a moron, she'll get the message. Mentioning the sexist weirdness, if done at all, is best done to HR and not the boss.
posted by benzenedream at 12:22 PM on September 14, 2011

Never, never give a exit interview in which you complain about anyone above you on the food chain. I have a friend who got very badly burned doing this, even though the malfeasance was substantial and had driven away several key employees. Sometimes folks at the top are foolish; sometimes they can't fire the dude no matter what you say; sometimes they'll turn on you for perceived disloyalty. No good can come of it. It's sad, but true.
posted by Frowner at 12:24 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

No. HR doesn't want to hear it unless you are suing. When I did an exit interview at my last insane place of employment, I politely refused to answer every question except for where I was going next.

I wasn't happy about that, but I've been burned before. That particular place of employment is sick and likes it that way. There was no way I was going to be able to change anything, so I chose to leave without poisoning the well.
posted by QIbHom at 12:31 PM on September 14, 2011

Never assume you won't need a reference, or a hand from somewhere in the past. You may find yourself 10 years down the line doing things you never expected you would be doing again and leveraging friends and connections which have long since been dormant. Also, never assume that the people you worked with won't up and change careers either... Fate has a nasty habit of reminding us of the nasty things we say. As such, always recognize how much influence you actively have in a given situation:

If it has potential to hurt people who you do value and would give you a positive reference - do not say it.
If it has potential to hurt your image - do not say it.
If it has legal implications and aren't willing to be more involved than "he said/she said" - do not say it.

If however, you don't mind dealing with a headache, badmouthing from people who you used to work with (it always gets out), blame for what is wrong in the department (hell, you aren't here anyway), and not ever having references from that company - say something.

And yeah, if the sexual harassment was big enough - you wouldn't be writing this question, you'd have done something about it earlier.
posted by Nanukthedog at 12:41 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I doesn't really matter what the sexual harassment was. Even if my boss had been grabbing my breast every morning, I wasn't going to report it and risk losing my job. I guess I'll just smile and say I'm moving to be closer to my family and "pursue other opportunities" but if anyone ever asks me why I left computer programming I'll tell them about the two jobs I had where I was belittled, demeaned, and harassed because I am a woman.
posted by idle at 1:00 PM on September 14, 2011

Exit interview? You're not required to offer anything in order to leave a job. Say that the company is probably the best place to work in the world and that everybody you worked with and for was extremely professional and tops in their field.
posted by rhizome at 1:05 PM on September 14, 2011

If you are dealing with sexual harassment again make sure you document thoroughly and bring a complaint to HR so you have a paper trail. That will help you negotiate if the situation gets completely unbearable and is better than feeling trapped with no options. Legally it's a very clear cut situation and you have rights.

Bad boss... sadly not as clear cut. The exit interview is not a productive time to bring it up either - this is your chance to leave gracefully. Because you have had such little exposure to the big boss it wouldn't be useful to take the time for complaining while you are headed out the door. Be graceful and professional.

Honestly, she'll get that you are voting with your feet on this one.
posted by rainydayfilms at 1:56 PM on September 14, 2011

Agree with rhizome... You're not required to offer an open and honest exit interview, but you're also not looking to burn any bridges either. I don't think you need to give glowing recommendations of people or processes if you don't truly think so, but you shouldn't be negative either.

Do the exit interview, answer questions in a professional manner. Do not talk badly or offer any substantial suggestions that would infer that a negative work environment is currently in place. In essence, navigate the exit interview like a politician, avoiding tough questions with unoffensive non-answers.

While employed there, you've had your opportunity to discuss problem areas. Your employer has also had opportunities to act on those problem areas. The problems were communicated or acted upon appropriately, but it doesn't matter now.

It's not your job anymore to get your employer's house in order to better serve their employees and clients. That's their job now. Be pleasant, professional, and move on.
posted by seppyk at 2:03 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with the comments to remain neutral. Offer nothing more than a neutral response. It follows my "jerk" theory. Actually I call it something else - replace jerk with a swear word beginning with the letter "A"

If I told you - you are a jerk, and then proceeded to go into detail as to how you are a jerk.

What would you think?

A. Wow, I really need to work on myself. That conversation was so insightful.
B. That person is crazy! What do they know about me and what I have to deal with daily?

If you are like me and most employers at exit interviews it is "B".

Nothing will be gained even with good intentions to bring up the company's dirty laundry during an exit interview. If they cared about your opinion before they would have asked.
posted by BuffaloChickenWing at 2:17 PM on September 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

"I am making this change because my personal goals have evolved over time, and this change will help me realize those goals. Do you have any specific questions?" If any of those specific questions require a positive answer, answer it to your own comfort level; if any of those specific questions require a negative answer, reply "I'm sorry, but I'd rather not discuss that." If they want to, they'll get the message, without you having to say anything negative.
posted by davejay at 2:31 PM on September 14, 2011

OP's friend, I'm sad to hear about your situation. I don't know what the right thing to do is.
Sorry to tack on a question, but many of these answers make me uneasy. What on earth is the point of holding an exit interview if you don't wanna hear what the employee honestly has to say? What's an exit interview really for?
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 2:37 PM on September 14, 2011

What's an exit interview really for?

To allow them to tick a box, to be perceived as following best practice, to keep the useless people that make up a lot of HR departments in a job...I could continue but you get the idea.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:54 PM on September 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

What's an exit interview really for?

Free HR brainstorming topics, reworking policies if there are any illegal things going on that they recognize but you're not suing over, ways to improve the interview/intake process. An exit interview is all upside for HR, just keep it to short sentences and don't fall for any "uncomfortable silence" tricks to keep you talking. Why people leave a company is important information, and the exit interview is the best/easiest time to get it.
posted by rhizome at 3:32 PM on September 14, 2011

Standing up for yourself is not a bad thing, and you are not burning bridges if you complain about someone, you are showing that you care about yourself.

Do yourself, and every woman that follows after you in reporting to this creep, a favor and report him. If you don't you're just helping to teach him that it's ok to act that way.

I don't care if the guy is an idiot, you can skim over that with HR, but sexual harassment is an extremely serious matter.
posted by zombieApoc at 4:45 PM on September 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

An exit interview is simply a CYA move on the part of the company and HR. If you sue them two months from now they can bring up the interview in court and say they made a good faith effort and you had a chance to tell them anything, such as harassment, that may have caused you to quit and they might be liable for. HR is there to protect the company, they are not therapists or your friends, HR will tell management things you may think are confidential, so don't tell them anything you would be uncomfortable saying to your old boss' face.

That being said if sexual harassment played a role in causing you to quit, you should tell them, you deserve some sort of recompense. And if there is any justice your old boss will be disciplined.
posted by Ad hominem at 5:51 PM on September 14, 2011

I'm mostly inclined to fall into the "you're leaving, leave well enough alone, and you don't owe them anything in order to quit" camp, but the sexism/harassment aspects of this are really bugging me and make this a more complex issue. Your feedback here is of a much different character then the standard "office is dysfunctional, too much bureaucracy, bad process, etc..." complaints.

Software development has, for all sorts of reasons too numerous and vague to begin to enumerate, an enormous problem attracting and retaining female professionals. I'm a male programmer, and this aspect of my industry very much bothers me. One of the many problems is that some people are jerks toward their female co-workers (as opposed to the people who are just jerks toward all their co-workers, but that's a different problem), and when you're in an industry with so few women to begin with, odds are decent that you can wind up as the solitary target of that nonsense and harassment. By speaking up, you have a small chance of doing a little something of what you can about this problem.

Now, to be clear, I'm not saying that the fact that you have ladyparts should somehow obligate you to take a courageous stand on behalf of womankind and female programmers everywhere. It doesn't. What you say, if anything, is entirely your choice and should be about what you feel comfortable with.
posted by zachlipton at 5:53 PM on September 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

From the flip side, I had an employee who quit on me for reasons that were immature, uninformed, and delusional ("grass is always greener" thinking). Everybody at the company recognized this and don't hold it against me, however this was his first job out of school, and being an inexperienced idiot, he trashed me in his exits not just with HR, but with the new boss two levels above me (so my direct boss's boss) who had started about 1-2 weeks before he left.

Needless to say, I was less than pleased and got very defensive. It also made his last week (since he decided to be even stupider and at the last minute take his last week as vacation) very awkward.

At the end of the day, I've gotten through it at work (and actually got promoted soon after that). The reason I'm telling you all of this however is because perception of a situation is always different, and at the end of the day, he may have thought one thing, and I may have thought another. However we are in a very incestuous industry and it wouldn't be a surprise to run into him in the future. And since he burnt that bridge to a crisp, I have no problem returning the favor.

Moral of the story: its not worth it unless you intend to sue. Give generic boring answers or politely decline to answer the questions and just move on with your life.
posted by Elminster24 at 7:30 PM on September 14, 2011

I think you should tell them what kind of a boss he was, in a reasonable, sincere manner and without personal attacks (eg, he's an idiot) but with specifics (not having guidance/attendance policies not enforced was an issue that affected productivity and is hurting other teams as well). And the specific things he said to you that were offensive. It's a big company. You're leaving the company and the town. You'll never see them again. You'll never work with them again. Might need a reference? All they can do is verify that you worked there if a future employer calls HR (in the US, anyway). For personal references you'd use other people with whom you worked who were not horribly incompetent.

I and a couple of former colleagues all pretty much torched our bridges with our bosses when leaving a horribly mismanaged workplace. Nothing happened. We provide personal references for each other because we were all, in fact, pretty decent at our jobs and we all get together and laugh about the craziness from time to time. I'm just not planning to apply to work there ever again, is all.
posted by citron at 8:18 PM on September 14, 2011

While Citron notes that all HR can do is verify to a future employer that they worked there, that is not accurate.

In addition to confirming that and your salary, a lot of times they will ask the HR person if the individual is eligible for rehire which is the "sneaky" way of HR people saying, "this person sucked and we canned them." Of course, in this situation that wouldn't really apply and there shouldn't be a risk from HR, but just wanted to clarify that point in case readers in different situations assume that HR is more limited in what they can say than they really are.
posted by Elminster24 at 1:35 PM on September 15, 2011

Some smart opinionated people on management practices believe that no good can come from being negative at an exit interview: Manager Tools on Exit Interviews.
posted by fief at 11:18 PM on October 2, 2011

I think Fief may have copy/pasted the wrong link. Fief, correct me if I'm wrong but I believe this is what you were trying to link to:

posted by Elminster24 at 8:35 PM on October 3, 2011

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