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Positive exit interview can pay dividends later

(ran NP, TP editions)

Workers who have been swept out their employer's door often feel angry and want to lash out during the dismissal announcement or exit interview, experts say.

But those workers need to tread carefully, walking a line between honesty and bitterness, because exit interviews can be a valuable resource for finding new jobs or landing a bigger severance package.

The first step to a successful exit interview is properly responding to learning that you are being cut, an announcement that could come hours or days before the exit interview.

"In that interview, the person does need to stay rational and doesn't need to burn bridges because it doesn't do any good and the decision has already been made," said Peter Ambler, president and founder of Ambler Associates, an outplacement company in Dallas.

"So pleading a case typically would not work because it's already been discussed, and this is the result of a discussion that may have taken place three or four weeks before."

Learning how to handle job loss continues to be a major concern for thousands of tech workers.

Even though the unemployment rate dipped to 5.6 percent last month, Chicago outplacement company Challenger, Gray & Christmas recently reported that 212,704 job cuts were announced in January, up 32 percent from December and the third-worst month since the company began the survey in 1993.

After the candidate has learned about the dismissal and is in the exit interview, prudence should be the watchword, said Nick Riccione, president of IT recruiting firm Riccione & Associates Inc. in Dallas.

"Everyone should keep it as positive as they can because you never know when that company will be hiring again," he said. "It's a small world."

Prudence is recommended, but silence isn't, Ambler said.

"The HR department will say, "Tell us about your experience with us and would you be available to come back again if we call you back?' " Ambler said. "With that you can be honest because you are not volunteering anything. That's the point: that you don't want to volunteer anything" but instead respond specifically to the questions.

Riccione said that workers who suddenly volunteer accusations against managers and co-workers in an exit interview may not look credible because human resources professionals will wonder why those concerns weren't voiced earlier.

If prompted, lay out some of your complaints, Ambler said, but remain calm.

"Don't talk about it in a griping or whining way because those people that you're talking to may have leads for you," he said. "That's quite possible, and they're not forced to give them to you. And they do have contacts that you can use their name on to make introductions."

If HR managers ask if you'd be willing to someday return to the company, don't give in to the desire to respond with a witty putdown.

"Even if you don't want to go back there again, tell them you would," Ambler said. "You can always turn down an offer and say, "No, I don't want to do it this time.' But at least you have the choice then to turn it down."

Staying calm in an exit interview also increases the chance that you'll negotiate a sweeter severance package.

"Whether you leave or not may not be negotiable, but whether they give you one week's pay for every year of experience or whether they sweeten that is negotiable," Ambler said. "Or whether you can keep your car a little bit longer or keep your benefits going a little bit longer.

"It's hard not to take things personally, especially when it affects you personally," he said. "Unless you've been laid off two or three times, you don't really understand what that means. But you don't need to be rude or nasty."