This is when to be honest during your exit interview

You should feel safe to open up. If you have a good manager, helpful feedback is going to be welcome.

An exit interview is the final official goodbye before an employee and a company part ways. The hard work of finding a new job is over. The end is almost in sight. But there is still one last hurdle to clear — the final interaction between you and human resources on why you are leaving and what led you to accept a new job.

This is where the conversation can become a minefield, and you must balance honesty with tact. Above all, you want to leave the job gracefully with your reputation intact. Here’s how to do it right:

The case for tactful honesty

If you work in an open, trusting work environment, you should feel comfortable with giving honest feedback about how your experience at the company went and how it can be improved — with some caveats.

Be sure to pepper your critiques with positive experiences, so that the conversation does not seem lopsided to your audience. Even though you are on your way out, you are still working on impression management. Reputations about your professionalism can last longer than any one job.

The case for keeping quiet

Unfortunately, not every employee has the luxury of working in an open, trusting environment where their feedback will get heard. This is where you must choose your words more carefully.

For employees who have endured bad bosses and unhealthy office politics, it can be tempting to make the exit interview an airing of grievances. Emotions can run high when you are under heavy stress and frustration.

“What can they do? Fire me? I already quit!” the vengeful employee thinks. But under this mindset, a critique of the company becomes a personal attack, and this can pave a path to destruction. Exit interviews are the last impression employees leave with a company. Industries can be smaller than you imagine. If you want to throw a colleague under the bus, you better hope that you do not need them as a personal reference in the future.

“What if one of those same managers that you scorched is hired into your new company in a position of authority, even your direct boss? I’ve seen this more than a few times,” Ian Matthews, a senior executive, told Quora.

Instead of blaming widely, focus on specific examples of improvement related to work that you can back up, as Wendy Bliss, a human-resources consultant, advises: “Instead of saying your boss is terrible and everybody hates him, you might say, ‘He was very dedicated to the job and always had his eye on results for the company, and sometimes that dedication led him to be overly involved in employees’ work.’ ”

You may also want to consider the audience of your feedback. Who is the person you are going to be having this conversation with? Do you trust them?

If you work in a toxic workplace where bosses will retaliate, focus on leaving unscathed. Keep your answers focused on how the new job is so awesome that you could not possibly refuse, rather than focusing on how this job was so terrible you could not wait to get out.

In these cases, you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that even though you were unable to fully speak your mind, you made it out intact.

Monica Torres|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at mtorres@theladders.com.