Should I tell my former employer why I left?
March 3, 2015 2:48 AM   Subscribe

I recently quit a new job because of a toxic and dysfunctional environment. In my resignation letter I just said it wasn't a great fit, but a few days later they contacted me and asked for honest feedback about why I left. Friends are concerned that responding could open me up to some sort of liability. Should I?

I'm inclined to respond, if for no other reason than that maybe they'll listen to some of it and the next person they hire won't have to suffer quite so much. But several of my friends have recommended I don't respond, or if I do, to gloss it over as a bad culture fit and not mention any of my real issues. They seem concerned that responding honestly would open me up to some sort of liability. What might that be? Is it something I need to worry about? Should I respond? If I do, should I respond honestly? I would of course be polite and professional in my response.

Potentially relevant details: It's a very small company (I was the 5th person on the team), and there are family dynamics at play--the biggest (but not the only) issue was my direct supervisor, who is also the father of one of owners. The few times I attempted to bring up concerns while I was there, I was either patted on the head or yelled at that it wasn't my business. It was at-will employment and I explicitly resigned. I was only there a few week and do not intend to include this job on my resume. I've already received my first paycheck and I'm mostly confident that they wouldn't withhold my second and final one out of spite--but only mostly.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (42 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
No. You stand to gain nothing by responding to this request. They know damn well why you left. Get your paycheck and never think about these people again.
posted by deathpanels at 3:00 AM on March 3, 2015 [51 favorites]

It is illegal to withhold a paycheck so I would set that aside. I think a candid, but tactful, response would be appropriate. I doubt if it would be slanderous or you would not be asking this question. I have difficulty imaging what liability you would have unless it was something blatantly slanderous or untrue ( e.g. falsely asserting crimes/inappropriate behavior etc). I suppose they could give you a bad reference but that short of a work experience is not significant. If after writing a candid response you do not feel comfortable with the content--pitch it and forget it
posted by rmhsinc at 3:03 AM on March 3, 2015

It's hard to see how your providing honest feedback to your former employers would expose you to any liability. You've already quit. What else could they possibly do to you?

But - you owe them nothing. There's no benefit to you in telling them how much they suck. Why risk pissing them off and having them be jerks about paying you what they owe you?

Tell them no, get your money, and forget they ever existed.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 3:11 AM on March 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

They will never use your feedback in a positive way. They will only use it to spin lies about how you were a terrible fit for the position and culture. Write back and politely decline. You could say something like, "I appreciate your interest in my feedback. At this time I have none to offer, but I will let you know if that changes."

Do not give them ammo, no matter what.
posted by Hermione Granger at 3:14 AM on March 3, 2015 [45 favorites]

posted by dbiedny at 3:17 AM on March 3, 2015 [7 favorites]

The liability you expose yourself to is word-of-mouth character assassination. A word in the wrong ear might lose you a great opportunity five years down the line. Why paint a potential target on your back when you gain nothing by it?

Hermione's response has my vote as an incredibly subtle "fuck you", but I'd just ignore the request altogether.
posted by Leon at 3:29 AM on March 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've been in your shoes and pressured to explain why I left. The only difference was that I'd previously been open aboutthe inequitable and unreasonable environment, and I was told that I was wrong, that my feelings were wrong, that my opinion was wrong...

It gave me great pleasure to prevaricate at my exit interview. They tried so hard to get me to tell them again about the hideous, elitist, unreasonable and demotivating environment they had created, but only, I think to give them another opportunity to tell me how wrong I was.

So, yeah, I personally don't see the point. Organisations that interested in positive change will already have been discussing these issues. Dysfunctional ones only want to hear what you have to say in order to prove you wrong.
posted by b33j at 3:33 AM on March 3, 2015 [17 favorites]

I'm mostly confident that they wouldn't withhold my second and final one out of spite--but only mostly.

I would think even a very small possibility of them withholding your paycheck out of spite would be a sufficient reason not to give feedback. And yes, withholding your paycheck would be illegal, but that doesn't mean it can't happen.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:41 AM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

I was on the fence until I read it was a family business. Any slim chance that your criticisms would be heard become inpercievebly tiny when you add family dynamics into the mix.

The risk to you is very small, but you gain nothing by offering honest feedback. Moreover, they will gain nothing because they aren't going to really listen.
posted by Betelgeuse at 4:00 AM on March 3, 2015 [13 favorites]

Save your feedback for an organization that has expressed an iota of willingness to change.

No good can come of this.
posted by parki at 4:03 AM on March 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

Only way I would consider giving them feedback would be as a highly paid consultant.

In the future, even your resignation letters shouldn't mention why you're leaving.
posted by cjorgensen at 4:28 AM on March 3, 2015 [8 favorites]

The liabilities are that they may use your information to bad mouth you to others in the company or others they may interact with professionally, spinning what you told them into whatever boosts their dysfunctional company environment. Eg., "then on the way out he/she told us we were doing this wrong, the nerve!" Or they may drag you back into their messes with a second follow up to explore this topic with the person causing the biggest problem, and this is a waste of your time. I understand it is tempting when given an opportunity to "provide feedback" upon leaving an organization, like it could be an opportunity to help them or the next person in your shoes, but as everyone here and if you google "exit interview" agrees, don't feel like this is a session to help them by sharing honest feedback. It's not. If they cared they would have listened to you the first time around when you worked for them, and they should have listened to you then. But they didn't, and it's not going to get better now. So, leave it as " I found a opportunity that was a better fit with my career goals" or along those lines. That's honest. But don't criticize them. Then, go forth and enjoy your freedom and congrats on getting the heck out!
posted by NikitaNikita at 4:30 AM on March 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

Since your aim here is to get out sane and with a good reference, I’d stick to saying that it just wasn't a good fit and are leaving because you got an opportunity you couldn’t turn down.

That said, you do want to factor in what you know about how your manager/company handles honest feedback. Do they have a history of shooting the messenger? (Sounds like they do.) If they HAD seemed very open to acting on honest feedback in the past you could be honest about what's bothering you, balanced with what you did like about the company so they're not left with an overwhelmingly negative impression.

In this case the family MUST KNOW about the issues and they have been unwilling to change. All you'd be doing, I fear, is giving them more ammunition to continue slugging it out among themselves, and you might get caught in the crossfire.

It is not your job to 'fix' this company, it would do you no good to try, and you have no obligations to them after departing.

By being candid you're opening yourself up to the father of one of the owners causing you more grief, either by rilling up his kid or with malicious gossip about you.

Run away
posted by NoiselessPenguin at 4:41 AM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

You should not do this. I know someone who did this, and it came back and burned them in a LOT of ways. What happens is that people will leave that company, you may encounter them elsewhere in new roles (you'd be surprised!) and they will remember you as a negative person who Said Mean Things and was not a team player and it will hurt your job chances. Even if there is, say, one manager who really, truly wants to hear what you have to say in order to make improvements, there are another ten who will view saying anything negative at all as a sign that you are a discipline case, want to get them in trouble, don't understand professional norms, etc etc.

Never say anything negative about work at work, ever ever ever.
posted by Frowner at 5:02 AM on March 3, 2015 [14 favorites]

Not in writing certainly.
posted by 724A at 5:08 AM on March 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

Count me among the "absolutely not!" camp. There's nothing to be gained by telling them even if the request was made in good faith, and you've provided plenty of indicators that any feedback you do provide won't be acted upon. spitbull's script is spot on; use it.
posted by Gelatin at 5:25 AM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

The few times I attempted to bring up concerns while I was there, I was either patted on the head or yelled at that it wasn't my business.

They already know why you left. Either they'll do something about it (I'm doubtful) or they won't. Telling them a second time is definitely not going to do anything positive for you, and presents a non-zero chance of causing something negative for you.

Relish the fact that these people are no longer your problem to deal with (you did a GREAT thing by leaving when you did!), and then wash your hands of them.
posted by DingoMutt at 5:30 AM on March 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

The liability you expose yourself to is word-of-mouth character assassination.

Based on the atmosphere described, that's going to happen regardless of what OP does or doesn't say. That's how offices like this one work. Anyone daring to leave is usually spoken of as "dead weight", "not a good fit" "never lived up to expectations" etc. etc.

Anyway...No. Don't tell them a thing. If the top brass aren't smart enough to see what's going on, then too bad.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:34 AM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

My guess is that they know exactly why you resigned, and the person asking you for specifics is part of the internal power struggle going on in the company, and that person is trying to get ammunition for his "side" against your direct supervisor. While it just so happens that the person on that side is in the right, it's not your job to get involved in this workplace conflict. Because you have no leverage or power in this situation, stepping into the middle of this conflict can only hurt you.

I wish it weren't that way, and the right thing to have happen would be for that supervisor of yours to get sidelined for bringing down the business and alienating employees, but you have to protect yourself. It sounds like they went out of their way to treat you poorly when you were an employee that they needed. They have even less motivation to treat you well and respect you when you're not.
posted by deanc at 5:38 AM on March 3, 2015 [28 favorites]

Deanc nailed it. It's a family company. They're playing family power games. Dysfunctional company, dysfunctional family. Don't get caught up in the drama.
posted by BlueHorse at 5:45 AM on March 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

From the part above the fold, I was going to say yes, provide the feedback, but with the additional details about it being a family company and that you gave feedback while there, my answer is not just no but hell no. Say no thanks politely, or just repeat your generic "not a good fit" phrase from your resignation letter and let everyone move on.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:45 AM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't say I have no feedback, which is obviously a lie and it's good practice never to lie in a professional context.

What I would do, though, is politely decline the opportunity.

"Thanks for the opportunity to give feedback, which I really appreciate. However, I don't wish to avail of the opportunity at this point".
posted by bimbam at 5:49 AM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Another vote here for Oh heck, NO!

Any resignation letter for any job should always stay short and classy: a simple "Please accept my resignation effective [date]" will do, although if you want you could add something like "Thank you for the opportunity to work for [company]. I'm sure what I've learned here will serve me well in my career." --- note that that part does not say what you learned (your boss is a bigoted jerk, now you know how to spot the office thief, whatever...), its just empty-but-pleasant words.

This is especially true for a small and/or family-run company: telling the awful truth will not help you, nor will it make them change anything they do; it will only create ill-will.

(And hanging onto your paycheck is illegal, yeah.)
posted by easily confused at 5:52 AM on March 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

No, and if they press you for the answer, tell them that your consultant fee is $300 an hour and you would be happy to come in and do a report for them to help them better improve their workplace.
posted by myselfasme at 5:56 AM on March 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you give them this feedback, do not do it in writing. Have an in person meeting for coffee or something. And, yeah, I would be much more concerned about character assassination than legal liability.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:22 AM on March 3, 2015

No, and especially not in writing. You owe this company nothing. There is nothing in it for you and you'd only be providing them with ammo for bad references down the line.

I left my first job with a big company, and almost two years later (after I'd quit the job I'd left the first job for), I start being hounded by an "independent third party researcher" for details on why I left. I declined the "survey" several times. They didn't stop calling until I changed my phone number (for other, unrelated reasons).
posted by tckma at 7:04 AM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

You're not going to be subject to any liability that I can think of. If your friends are worried about defamation, that's not realistic. Won't get into the boring legal reasons here, but no, not a concern.

Still, I agree with the consensus here that you shouldn't talk to them. There's absolutely no upside to doing so and a ton of downside, and you would basically be doing a free focus group for them; if that's what they want, let them go pay for it.

If you feel like you absolutely have to say something or burst (which it doesn't seem is the case from your question), just repeat what you told them in your resignation letter, period end of sentence.
posted by holborne at 7:47 AM on March 3, 2015

Toxic and dysfunctional family dynamics are not going to change by your pointing it out.

They know what they are.

Ignore the request.
posted by RainyJay at 7:52 AM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

No, don't bother - file this under "Never try to teach a pig to sing - it wastes your time and annoys the pig."

I've worked for more than one small family business, although I've never given an exit interview, and I think deanc may be on to something above with the idea that this could be an internal powerplay.

Even if not, though, I'll offer some mild disagreement with some of the answers - they may very well NOT have any real idea why you're leaving. Lots of people have little to no interest in self-awareness, lots of people are not good at it, and small businesses are often so caught up in the daily/weekly chaos of simply operating a business that they don't have the time, energy, or inclination to think about 'bigger picture' things like corporate culture or psychologically healthy work environments.

But that's even more reason why a truth-telling exit interview will not accomplish anything. There's a strong and common cultural narrative where losing someone or something important forces someone to have a sudden realization of their own problems which contributed to the loss, so it's an understandable impulse to think that this will actually happen in real life. But it probably won't. And the fact that you attempted to raise these issues while you were working there and your ideas were rudely dismissed adds weight to the idea that this small family company simply doesn't have the mental capability or structure in place to address these issues or even recognize them as problems.

Or to put it another way, from your position as an outsider you can clearly see that Dad is a petty tyrant who is deeply angry and frustrated that he somehow wound up subordinate to his son (or whatever his actual problem is). But there's no way that your single solitary exit interview is going to break through literal decades of denial and excuses and rationalizations and all sorts of other family dynamics and make him and his family have a blinding flash of insight of "OH shit, Dad is the problem!" and then he'll change his ways or they'll move him out of the company. They won't listen; likely they can't listen.

Good for you for hoping to make life better for the next person in your shoes, but I think it's a vain hope. This is the kind of situation where they have learn things the hard way - after the tenth person has left after a few weeks, they might begin to consider why they can't keep employees, and think about how to fix it. But no exit interview you give is going to get them there any faster. Don't waste your time or energy.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:58 AM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't know that you're in any real peril from being honest about what's wrong with the toxic office you're leaving but it is not worth your time, your emotional energy, and any risk that there may be to your professional reputation to give them a honest assessment of why you're leaving. If you were leaving a job you loved, in an environment that nurtured and suited you, you'd have incentive and benefit to explaining your decision to leave. Toxic environments don't benefit from the complaints of the abused and the complainer has wasted effort and suffers another defeat in taking the time offer a reasoned assessment.

I once quit a toxic, dysfunctional job. I had no choice but to do an exit interview (actually, I did not mind doing the debrief; I was leaving behind a number of cases which someone was going to have to handle and I wanted to be sure the clients did not get screwed). When the partner asked me, specifically to my face, what were the aspects of the office/job/environment/whathaveyou which contributed to my desire to leave, I cocked my eyebrow at him and lied through my teeth, saying I would simply be happier handling a different type of case and taking a great opportunity that had been offered me.

Both of us knew I was not going to give him any insight into why their attorneys turned over every year that was not already obvious. We both know that whatever was necessary to change and improve the office would not come from an exit interview with an unhappy employee. Where current employees have no influence to improve bad practices or toxic environments, the opinions of effectively-former employees will be openly derided.

In my exit interview, the partner knew everything I said about leaving was a lie and I knew it was a lie but both of us knew that nothing I said would be unknown to him and that nothing was going to change. I could tell him "Well, the partner I directly report to shrieks obscenities all day long. So does his wife, whose voice i can actually hear through his cell phone from his office while I'm sitting at my desk. Also, he literally does no work at all, except call his buddies about making book on the college call, and occasionally ask me how I intend to handle a motion call." Not to mention [long litany of bait and switch on job duties and other unpleasant office bullshit]. The partner was not going to use that information--which he already had without my telling him about it--just because I mentioned it when I was leaving. Dysfunctional office structures leave no room to change the bad actor's behavior, no matter how many people complain, especially if they complain on their way out the door.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:05 AM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Don't respond. You severed your relationship with them and you are under no obligation to explain to them why. Save it for your friends or family or shrink.
posted by dfriedman at 8:08 AM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Somebody is planning on suing somebody else in this family business. They want your written testimony as evidence.

posted by jbenben at 8:12 AM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Say what you want about Richard Nixon, but his letter of resignation is a thing of beauty in terms of brevity and getting the point across. I used this model for the one letter I submitted.
posted by 724A at 8:38 AM on March 3, 2015 [9 favorites]

I was once in this situation, but as a consultant. After I quit, the client began badmouthing me around the state - and this is a very small state. I was tempted to try to counter what he was saying, but I'd spent years building a reputation for honesty and ethical behavior, and I couldn't figure out a way to do that without sounding snarky and lowering myself to his level. I worried that it would affect my ability to attract clients going forward, but I let it go.

Several years later I was in a group of folks scoring grant proposals for the state. As luck would have it, this client's proposal ended up in my pile, and they had applied for money to do something I'd completed for them three years earlier. I waited until the group was asked if we had any questions and I asked, "If we know that an applicant has lied on an application, do you want to know about it?" You could have heard a pin drop. At their request I told them the details, including that this guy had been badmouthing me across the state since I'd quit. One of the other reviewers cracked up and said, "(Client's name) hates your guts? That's gotta be the best thing on your resume' - no matter what else is on there!" Needless to say, my ex-client wasn't funded, and the group's reaction left me feeling vindicated.

All this to say, be patient. Don't lie to people about what happened, but the right time will come for you to be entirely honest when it can do some good. Hang in there. You were right to leave.
posted by summerstorm at 9:45 AM on March 3, 2015 [7 favorites]

Nope. You want them to provide a good reference for you in the future.
posted by radioamy at 10:45 AM on March 3, 2015

I think you should respond and just reiterate that it was a bad fit, there are no hard feelings, and you are pursuing other opportunities that are a better match for you. Thank them for the opportunity to work for them. That way you're blameless. Ignoring their request could still lead to them trashing you around town.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 1:16 PM on March 3, 2015

If they are the type to hold your paycheck out of spite then they are most certainly the type to use whatever you have to say against you.

Don't do it.

And it's illegal to withhold a paycheck, so right now the ball is in your court. If you respond to their request the ball will be in theirs and perhaps that's exactly what they want.
posted by manderin at 5:51 PM on March 3, 2015

I'd take it a step further from bimbam's. "Thank you for the opportunity to provide feedback. I wish you the best in your future endeavours. Regards, Me."
posted by disconnect at 6:29 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Lots of good advice here. The only thing I'd add is a suggestion to not respond to their request until they've made it two or three times. Then go with something as neutral as possible.
posted by lester at 9:04 PM on March 3, 2015

Keep schtum. There's no benefit to you, the chance of it benefitting your successor is vanishingly small, and the chance of *some* kind of bad result for you is not insubstantial. Fob them off with platitudes and move on with your life.
posted by Drexen at 3:42 AM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

You're not on the payroll any more. Your expertise and time are your own. Don't donate them to a company that abused you and headed by principals you don't respect.
posted by gingerest at 3:58 AM on March 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

Let them ask you a few times, since that might inspire them to send that second paycheque. Then, when you do answer, stick to the "bad fit" line.
posted by rpfields at 1:41 PM on March 5, 2015

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