Is there really a way to leave a company without burning a bridge? Of course there is! But many people wind up souring relationships they've spent a long time building based on the way they head out the door. Here are five of the subtler (yet all too common) blunders to avoid when it's time to give your notice.
Say you’ve been working with the same boss for six years in multiple roles. You have a close, even personal relationship. So you think it would be way too curt and abrupt to walk into their office one day and announce, "I’ve decided to leave the company"—right?
Wrong. If you say you’re thinking of leaving, you’re actually giving your boss homework: you've just invited them to come up with ways to get you to stay put. And don't think they won't try and do just that. If your boss rushes over to the company’s management team, uses political capital to put together an enticing counter-offer, and then you turn it down, your boss will have egg on their face and be very unhappy. You’ve wasted their time and the outcome is still the same: you’re still leaving.
A senior-level manager once recounted to me that he was just too afraid to tell his boss he was leaving. Instead, he said he was "thinking it may be time to make a change. "His boss came back two days later offering a 10% raise, a title promotion, and added flexibility around working from home once a week. When he turned this down, his boss completely flipped out, fired him on the spot, and escorted him out of the building. No further references, bridge burned, three years of work in the can.
Now, this may be an extreme case, but it isn't unheard of. No matter how good your intentions, it's always best to rip off the Band-Aid. Be forthright and final. Your boss and colleagues will actually respect you more.
Walking out the door without giving your boss a plan of action on how to get on without you is like leaving the babysitter without instructions for putting your kids to bed. Drafting a transition plan shows that you’re empathetic—you care about the company (specifically your boss) and want to leave a positive legacy. Second, it shows you’re committed to leaving so they won’t try and get you to stay.
Whether your employer chooses to implement your plan or throw it in the trash when you walk out the door is up to them, but it doesn't hurt to put together a 30-, 60-, or even 90-day plan outlining how you'd make do with your own departure if you were in your supervisor's shoes. Your plan should include:
- how to tie off outstanding projects
- a list of the key members of your team and those you rely on most for the work you do
- names of colleagues who can fill critical gaps until a replacement can be found
- non-obvious people (in- or even outside your organization) whom you've used in order to succeed, along with contact information or even introductions
Providing such a plan accomplishes three major things:
- It gives your organization the tools to succeed without you.
- It indicates you've made a clear decision.
- Protects your legacy with the company.
Many people want to take the weekend to think about an exit plan and execute that plan on a Monday. Don't do that. Whether or not it's what you want to convey, you may risk coming off as smug—you've decided to head to greener pastures, and now everyone needs to look at your stupid face for the next five days as the company decides its next move.
Instead, make a clean break on a Friday. Let the dust settle over the weekend. Give your boss and close colleagues time to think and work through their reactions. When you come in on Monday, it'll be easier to work with your supervisor on a transition plan.
If you're changing industries or moving to a company that's very different than yours, this is less of an issue. But if you're heading off to a direct competitor, keep in mind how past colleagues who've made similar leaps were treated. Did they give away too much information on where they were going? And was there any blowback? Maybe you work at a company where the culture is "you can’t quit, because I’m firing you!"—but where that isn't apparent until you've actually quit.
So be very cautious about how much detail you give your employer on your next move. Many people don't think twice before saying, "I've accepted X job at Y." But there can be some hidden risks in being so forthright. A diplomatic response that addresses need to answer, "So where are you going?" without saying more than you need to might go something like this:
There’s someone in the position I'll be moving into right now, so I can’t share the company name publicly because they haven’t been told yet. But once it becomes public, you’ll be the first to know.
Your boss may be disappointed, but they'll understand that if you're assuming the role of somebody who's being promoted or let go, and that you're respecting your new employer's timetable for announcing the switch, then it's out of your hands. Your boss and colleagues should be able to live with an answer like that, which may protect you from a bad situation between the time you give your notice and your last day. After that point, of course, it's much safer to say where you're heading.
You might think, "I’m really important—only I can close out these critical projects, so I can’t totally check out just yet." I had a friend who was known as a star employee at his company. When he gave notice, he offered to stay on board "working nights and weekends"after his official departure date, to help bridge the gap. Over the next three months, he continued to offer guidance—and produced sub-par results in the process.
His employer probably shouldn't have accepted his offer to keep helping out, but he shouldn't have made it in the first place. He'd mentally moved on yet invited his former company to treat him as though he were still on the job. By trying to be helpful and not delivering at the same level as before, he lost the opportunity to go out at the top of his game. Leave decisively—like the hero you want to be remembered for. You won't be doing anyone any favors otherwise.
Correction: This article has been updated to remove an unclear line about setting cutoff dates.