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I've been with my current employer for 4 years, and I really like the company, my colleagues, and most of the company culture in general. The company pays about average for the industry, but I've been working in the capacity of a more senior engineering role than my own (i.e. "senior engineer" working as a "principal engineer"; my bosses straight-up admit it) for about 2 years now, and my immediate supervisor has been missing so many meetings for the past year, I've been doing a large chunk of his job too. So, TLDR: I've been working at 1-3 pay grades above my own for 2 years, and it's been affecting my happiness. I've communicated this with my supervisors, and I'm "under consideration" for a promotion (have been for 16 months now).

A competitor decided to poach me, I aced the interviews, and signed an agreement with them that equates to a large pay raise (70% increase).

I've been present for exit interviews with colleagues in the past, and the two big questions that always get asked (bosses pry really hard for this info if parting employees try not to share it):

  • What are your reasons for leaving?
  • How much are they paying you?

To be honest, if my company would just give me a few promotions (or least 1 plus a large bonus), I wouldn't be leaving: period. However, I don't want to leave on bad terms, and if the company were to re-hire me down the road (i.e. when economy isn't trash), I would likely consider it for roughly double my current pay.

Question: should I be honest about why I'm leaving, if I ever want to come back? Should I sugar-coat it (i.e. "a very rare and generous offer crossed my desk" versus "I like money"), making sure to make it about the positive aspects, rather than negative (i.e. "you don't pay me enough for this job")? Or, should I just bullshit my boss or provide a non-answer?

Also, should I be honest about the pay, or exaggerate/inflate the number by maybe 10% to 20%, so I can claim a stronger negotiating position in the future if I ever return?

Thank you all.

Edit: I took over for the team's "principal engineer" about 18 months ago (died in a car accident).

  • So you are not underpaid. Or the company is not paying enough. The company is not hiring enough people and are not rewarding the ones working with promotions. Is that right? – SZCZERZO KŁY Aug 20 at 14:19
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    @SZCZERZOK┼üY The pay ranges the company offers for its positions are good enough, but I'm underpaid due to working several levels above my position without a pay increase. So, for all intents and purposes, yes: I am underpaid. – Alexandru Aug 20 at 14:25
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    That's the thing. You are paid for your position. But de facto you're doing higher one that should be rewarded differently. AND whats important, the company didn't catch up to that but left you hanging for almost year and a half. – SZCZERZO KŁY Aug 20 at 14:29
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  • @JoelEtherton It surely does – Alex M Aug 22 at 0:44
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Starting with the obligatory HR IS NOT YOUR FRIEND

The exit interview is for the company's benefit, not yours.

All you should say on an exit interview is that you enjoyed working for the company, your reasons are personal, and that your new employer does not want you disclosing salary information (if asked) and that you will respect their interests and not disclose that information.

Nothing else will benefit you in any way shape or form. If those responses earn you any ire, then this employer is not worth your time.

I would emphasize not disclosing the salary information, as your new employer will not want that information getting out. It's bad form at best.

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    It seems like it can only help them, if the company realizes that they need to improve things to avoid more losses. How can it hurt anyone to remind the company that they're not paying competively? – Barmar Aug 21 at 15:30
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    @KillianDS The exit interview is his last opportunity to emphasize that the company's policy isn't working. – Barmar Aug 21 at 16:03
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    @Barmar The company already knows what they pay. It's not the responsibility of their soon-to-be-former employee to "remind" them, nor is it in that person's best interest. If the company keeps undercompensated employees "in consideration" for promotions for well over a year, they already know why people are fleeing - and if they don't, no amount of "reminding" in exit interviews could possibly make any difference. – Alex M Aug 22 at 0:50
  • @Barmar the company can look at glassdor or salaries.com to figure that out. If they need a formerly gruntled employee to tell them what 10 seconds on the internet can tell them, they have bigger problems – Old_Lamplighter Aug 22 at 0:54
  • @Old_Lamplighter That's my problem -- I predate sites like that. – Barmar Aug 22 at 5:09
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Should I be honest about why I'm leaving?

I think the key word here is "open" rather than "honest".

It's almost never a good idea to be dishonest, in other words, I would not recommend lying about why you're leaving or about your next job.

The question really is, how open should you be? And the usual advice is: not that open. You have almost certainly mentioned your dissatisfaction with salary and other things over the last few years, and the company almost certainly knows how they pay compared to the market, but they've not done anything about it until the point where you've decided to leave. So there is normally considered to be not much benefit in being too open. There's too much risk of looking bitter or burning bridges, and you're leaving anyway so it give no benefit to you. Just emphasise the positives of your new job and thank them politely for the opportunities you've had there.

Should I exaggerate the pay at the new job, to give me a better negotiating position in case I come back?

No. Dishonesty is generally considered a negative character trait, and if your dishonesty is ever found out (for example in the UK, it's possible to work out someone's previous salary from their P45 form, other regions may vary) it could be grounds for disciplinary action or even dismissal. Even if that's not the case, it would be likely to have a negative effect on people's opinion of you (and in my view rightly so).

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  • Upvote for the distinction. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Aug 21 at 7:47
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    I like the distinction, but still downvote because I agree with Daniel below. It's better to say "I'm leaving because they're paying a lot more. I absolutely loved the job, but the pay was less than I wanted." than to say "I'm leaving. Can we leave it at that?" The latter seems to burn more bridges, cause confusion, etc. – RoboticRenaissance Aug 21 at 15:28
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    @RoboticRenaissance The answer given above is "Just emphasise the positives of your new job", rather than say "I'm leaving. Can we leave it at that?" as you suggest. That doesn't require stonewalling, just pivoting to talking about the exciting new opportunity at the new employer. – aem Aug 21 at 17:57
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I'm puzzled by a lot of the answers here. I'm not a expert negotiator, but I fail to see a strong downside to being direct and concise in a brief exit interview. Leaving for more money seems to me like the least contentious of all possible answers in that situation ("it's just business").

Should I be honest about why I'm leaving, if I ever want to come back?

I don't see any downside to being honest. Saying it's about money actually takes off the table the idea that you have hard feelings or a grudge of some sort. "I really liked working here, like the people very much, but I was given an offer I couldn't refuse". That seems like leaving on a great note.

Also, should I be honest about the pay, or exaggerate/inflate the number by maybe 10% to 20%, so I can claim a stronger negotiating position in the future if I ever return?

My first instinct to the question was to answer, "They approximately doubled my compensation". In my view, that's a true statement, in an order-of-magnitude analysis. Your new salary is indeed closer to x2 than x1 your old salary.

Admittedly there's no benefit in giving more detail than that. Don't give the exact number, don't debate over 10% or 20%. Keep it brief; you answered their question. I see no downside to this. Don't accept re-negotiation to stay once you've accepted another job; that can only put you further behind the salary curve in the future.

You'll be leaving with good feelings all around, make the exit interview simple and brief, you'll be open and honest, there will be an obvious path back in the future, and you've helped both yourself and your old company with greater awareness of the market and your value.


Supporting research: In the HR industry, it's common to refer to return employees as "boomerangs", and you can find many online articles in recent years speaking positively of the practice. In 2015 Workplace Trends did a study of 1800 HR professionals on the practice that is commonly cited. Among the findings:

  • 15% of employees have boomeranged back to a former employee.
  • 76% of HR professionals say they are more accepting of hiring boomerang employees today than in the past.
  • 40% of HR professionals say their organization hired about half of their former employees who re-applied for a job with them.
  • 56% of HR professionals and 51% of managers say they give high or very high priority to boomerang job applicants who left in good standing.

In a Forbes interview with David Almeda, one of the directors of the group that composed the report, he identified the following as the #1 top reason for "boomerang" hires to occur:

1. Those who left to further their career. These are folks who worked for an employer for a number of years, but saw an opportunity to add new skills and progress and then came back at a higher level and higher pay, he says. They may have been gone three to five years.

The latter sounds precisely like the OP's situation, so it would seem to suggest making as clear as possible that they "left in good standing". The OP should definitely highlight there was no bad blood or grudges, they had no problem with the work environment, etc., which are called out in various articles as things to watch out for. None of the articles I've seen mark leaving for job progression and higher pay as a warning flag; just the opposite -- it's largely seen as a benefit of increased leadership skills for a boomerang hire.

(P.S.: If the OP does find themselves in the "boomerang" position in the future, they should likely look at the advice on that situation at Fast Company and Harvard Business Review.)

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    @Mars: But that's disproven as a risk by the fact that people commonly return back to companies after exactly this situation playing out. In this case the model would be that OP would leave again the next time someone again doubles their salary, which is so unlikely as to be a non-consideration. – Daniel R. Collins Aug 21 at 6:16
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    I like this answer, the others that advise to be closed about the reasons all seem to have convoluted reasons to me. Always been honest in my work interviews and it really works well, but mostly I find hard to support the fact that giving no reason would be better to be re-hired, ie @Mars is really "OP will just run away again the second they get no known reason" really better than "OP "will just run away again the second they get a better offer" – Kaddath Aug 21 at 10:21
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    Thank you for this answer! When it comes to compensation being the reason for leaving the answer to "should I let them know" should always be a resounding YES. Otherwise, you are doing your former coworkers a disservice. I personally had a job that I left due to being underpaid where I told my boss that I received a 20% increase at the new job for the same position. I later discovered that due to my leaving as well as a few others, HR performed an evaluation and gave everyone in the department a market adjustment their salaries! – DanK Aug 21 at 12:33
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    Precisely; it's not a shame to leave due to a more attractive remuneration. It's a business and I assume you are dealing with grownups. All this "HR is not your friend business" feels very immature to me. OP appears to be making a sensible choice out of valid reasons. There is no need to hide anything or think that someone could be offended. – Konrad Aug 21 at 13:14
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    @Mars: I've added research on trends and attitudes for "boomerang" hires, thanks for suggesting that. – Daniel R. Collins Aug 21 at 14:21
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The other answers are right in that HR is not your friend, and this is not to benefit you, but the company. That said, I do think it would probably make sense for you to tell them.

Basically, the facts you mentioned: that you have been working at 1-3 pay grades above your own for 2 years, "as they are perfectly aware" (should have been told by your supervisor years ago, you should take that for granted); you have been "under consideration" for a promotion for 16 months now, but sadly your company has not been in a position to fill that position since died.

I don't think anyone should take offense about that. In fact, they should already know about that, see it coming, and if they are competent should have evaluated such risk a long time ago (it's tempting to overlook, "we can manage with Alexandru doing the work for half-pay", but if they are holding a promotion for such a long time... no matter the financial situation that the company might be in, the outcome is clearly predictable).

I don't think the situation would be the fault of your boss. It was probably blocked higher-up. In any case, if you explain that as they are aware you are doing XYZ and nobody above your boss really knew about that until last week (they might try to play the card that they didn't know, but it's highly unlikely, an engineer dies and HR didn't think they might need someone to take over that role??), they would ask him later.

Giving them the actual number you will be paid would be more problematic. While the former question (i.e. "if you don't pay people according to the task, they won't last much, in fact I probably stayed too long on this situation"), should be able to help them improve their company overall (your soon-former colleagues, maybe even yourself if you ever come back), the second they don't have any right to know about.

You may want to share the actual pay with them, as it is a clear way to show them how much they undervalued you, but it's probably better to keep some mystery about that. It would only matter if they were going to to counter-offer, but since "it would be unprofessional to back off at the other company", "it isn't worth discussing". That also removes the dilemma on whether inflate it or not.

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    Facts: yes. But sticking it to them with "as they are perfectly aware": no. Certainly not if one wants to keep future options open. – andy256 Aug 21 at 4:52
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should I be honest about why I'm leaving,

What's the point? You had dissatisfaction, you tried to convey and asked for a solution, that request was kind-of ignored to a point where you decided to move on. At this point, there's nothing you can say that can be beneficial to you.

When asked

"What are your reasons for leaving?"

Give a generic reason: Challenging position and a new role. No need to say anything more than that.

Oh, and based on jurisdiction, they might not even technically ask you the question about the payout for the other opportunity, as in some cases the remuneration is confidential between you and your employer. If they ask anyways, respond with

"I'm sorry, can't answer that as per the new agreement"

If you want to come back ever, don't think they're going to decide the hiring (or remuneration) based on the previous exit interview (unless there's something EXPLICITLY worth notice), it'll be a new ball-game altogether.

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  • I've seen them ask these questions first-hand in the past (i.e. while I sat in on exit interviews), so it's very likely I'll be asked the same questions. – Alexandru Aug 20 at 14:27
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    @Alexandru Fair enough,of you don;t want to answer a(ny) particular question, you can reply with something like "I'm sorry, can't answer that as per the new agreement", and keep repeating until they stop asking that question. As I said, nothing that you say can be beneficial to you at this point. Keep it short and move on. – Sourav Ghosh Aug 20 at 14:29
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99% of the time, the correct answer is "don't say anything of essence in the exit interview". I would suggest, though, that this might be that 1%. I was in nearly the same situation as you in my last job - underpaid, they knew it, got an offer I couldn't refuse money-wise for a lot more, and all of these circumstances applied to me as well.

  • You are leaving because of money. Yes, they know that they're underpaying you, but that's why you're leaving - not unhappiness with the company.
  • You're thinking of coming back in the future. Putting that idea in their head is not a bad thing now - and what would bring you back.
  • It sounds like there's at least some possibility you'd accept a counter, if they went that route. (They probably won't make a satisfactory counter, of course. And, if you're not actually willing to accept a counter offer of say double pay, then adapt the below a bit to make that clear.)

So - be blunt. Not exactly specific on the money - but you said in your question, "I'd consider coming back for double the money". Say that! Sticking to the truth isn't a problem when you're telling them what you'd want to come back.

I loved working for you all, but the money just isn't close. Given what I'm worth, and I know that from what I'm able to get elsewhere, I'd probably need close to double what I'm making right now. Since you're not able to pay that, I understand, but I have to go elsewhere. Perhaps in the future your economic circumstances will change and I might be able to return for an appropriate salary.

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You should decline an exit interview. If they force you to go to one, just say "The other company made me a better offer" and don't offer any other details. There is no upside to giving them any information, only potential downside.

So, don't ever say anything in an official exit interview.

If you like your manager and want to give them some honest feedback then do it over a drink, outside office hours, off the record.

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    Not sure what kind of exit interviews you've had, but typically this is where you sign the last forms, get an explanation of your next tax obligations, etc. It's neither something you can decline (it's work hours...), nor something that you should decline – Mars Aug 21 at 2:42
  • Where I've worked (in the UK) exit interviews have always been optional. The letter accepting your resignation contains all the "Don't forget you can't..." stuff; and tax details always arrive in the form of a P45 well after you've left and PAYE has been sorted out. Perhaps there's kit, cards and the like to be handed back, but that doesn't require an interview, merely delivery to the appropriate person. – Andrew Leach Aug 21 at 8:55
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Should you be honest?

Yes, it's morally right to be always honest.

Should you be open?

Yes, it's morally right to help your employer improve their business.

Should you protect yourself, your privacy, be polite and not burn bridges?

Yes, it's morally right to be polite and it is always moral to act in your own interest.

The interesting part is that those goals can conflict and therefore this is not a black or white question. This is a question of degree. How open can you be without providing more insight into your private thoughts than you want? How bluntly 'honest' can you be without being impolite? How open can you be without burning bridges? Those are the real questions.

While big corporate HR may not be your friend, they are not your enemy either. And sometimes individual managers can be your friend or at least friendly colleague. It can even be in your own selfish interest to provide valuable feedback to a company you leave now. If your feedback helps them succeed, it is more likely they can offer you a well-paying job in the future. And if they are aware that you helped them, even more likely they will hire you.

So there are mainly three angles to look for:

  1. How much do you trust your company to take your feedback as such without blaming you for bad news? How much do you value you old company and still wish they succeed?

  2. How valuable can your feedback be? Is it about processes? About how they treat you and others? Or is it just about a personal issue, perhaps you didn't get along with your team, but it was just a bad culture fit?

  3. How sensitive and personal is your decision? How much do you feel you need to open up private information you do not want to give up or perhaps a 3rd party does not want or even legally disallow you to give up? How much risk is involved in providing the information when it spreads beyond the person you are giving it to?

You need to answer all three questions and then balance them out. Based on that you can decide how much detail you want to give. If there is bad blood already and it's a personal issue, just decline to give any information besides "it's a personal decision for personal reasons" or such.
If there are processes you would want to see improved or benefit schemes you feel are badly designed and you think your boss is open for improvement suggestions, sure share it, there is little risk in doing so - if you are polite in giving the message. I.e. don't go "this process is so crappy, I had to puke every time I saw the form to fill out at step one and hand it to that asshat Steve". Rather go "process X feels a bit complicated, I guess you could shorten it and make it more to the point by skipping step a, b and c in cases that involve foo".

If your decision is primarily money based and you trust your employer to act in good faith, sure, mention "better salary" as a reason and suggestion "to perhaps look over your salary ranges and promotion plans to adjust to market value". I wouldn't give an exact figure in most cases, but it's a valid reason and every reasonable manager should accept that. However, if that is the case and you would stay if you got a raise you should ask for a raise before looking for jobs elsewhere. Otherwise the next question might be "why didn't you ask for a raise man?!". ;)

On a personal note: I have always given plenty of feedback, when there was interest, in a nice polite way to my now former employers. I could come back to all those employers in principle (assuming an open fitting job with a certain tendency to rather make that happen than not).

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    Oh, please. Imagine a scenario where a seller of some service is asked by a potential customer for (free) advice. It's not a question of morality whether the provider should answer or not. It's a question of business. Imagine going to a lawyer or butcher and telling them they are morally obligated to answer all of your questions. They would laugh till tears ran down their cheeks. OP did the work of three people while the company claimed they couldn't advance him. He has already done way more than he was obligated to. – HenryM Aug 21 at 0:45
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    Exit interviews are not mandatory or a job duty! – HenryM Aug 21 at 1:27
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    Morally right to help your soon to be ex-employer improve their business? I don't think so. It would be in conflict with the new employment contract. – andy256 Aug 21 at 4:54
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    @HenryM You misread, it's 3 paygrades, not 3 people. And exit interviews are typically mandatory, as they're performed on company time while providing you with the docs you need for transition... – Mars Aug 21 at 6:48
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    This sounds more like a self-help manual than actual business advice – Old_Lamplighter Aug 21 at 13:54
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I disagree with the previous answers. Yes, you should be honest in your exit interview for the following reasons:

  • Your reason for leaving is simple, non-personal and not contentious. You were offered a better salary elsewhere, and no one can argue with that.
  • Your existing employer may be able to offer a higher salary in future. If they are aware that salary was your sole reason for leaving, they might offer you a new more senior position in the future, especially if they have difficulty filling your role. This could come in very useful if things don't work out in your new position. I know several people who have been rehired at their old company in a more senior role after a year or two elsewhere.
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