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How to Quit Your Job Professionally

September 27, 2012

How to Quit Your Job Professionally

There’s a right and wrong way to leave your job. Here’s how not to lose friends or alienate people when quitting.

There’s a famous scene from an episode of Seinfeld, in which George Costanza (one of the main characters on the show) has decided to quit his job at a real estate agency. George storms into his boss’ office and starts berating him. “You are a laughing stock!” screams George. “You are a joke!...You’re nothing! You have no brains, no ability, nothing! I quit!” Then, before his boss can react, George marches out of the office, slamming the door behind him as if to put an exclamation mark on the whole performance.

This scene always manages to force a chuckle out of me. It taps into a fantasy we’ve all probably entertained at one point or another in our working lives, about telling an employer to “take this job and shove it!” I’ve been pretty lucky throughout my career as an accounting and finance recruiter in Toronto, to have worked for some great companies and managers, but let’s be honest: most of us have had a job we hated or a boss who made our lives hell, and imagined quitting in spectacular fashion, so that the whole world would know just how awful it was to work at that company or for that person. Everyone’s fantasized about going out with a bang, like George — or like Stephen Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant become Internet folk hero who, pushed over the edge by a rude passenger, announced that he was quitting over his plane’s public address system, grabbed a couple of beers from the galley, and exited the plane via the emergency chute.

But while you might dream of leaving your job in a giant blaze of glory, à la George Costanza or Stephen Slater, this kind of scorched earth approach to quitting can end up burning you instead. No matter how much you might hate your job, resigning on bad terms can irreparably damage your personal brand and reputation, as well as hurt your future career prospects. Even if you’ve already lined up a great new position, it still pays to leave your old one on good terms, as previous employers can remain vitally important resources throughout your career. Here, then, is a checklist for leaving your job on the right note.

Make up your mind

Before you walk away from your job, be sure that you can live with that decision, and that you won’t end up regretting it later. Terminating your employment isn’t a decision to be taken lightly or impulsively. Don’t look to abandon ship just because you had one bad month, or just got into a tiff with a co-worker. Quitting should always be your last resort, after you’ve exhausted every other possible option and means of improving your work situation.

But let’s say that you’ve made up your mind about quitting, and that you’re determined to find a new place of employment. Before you start clearing out your office, remember that it’s much easier to find a new job when you already have one in hand. As every recruiter will tell you, job hunting tends to yield better results from a position of strength than from one of weakness or desperation. Now if you already have a job offer on the table, you only need to determine whether you’d be better off sticking with your current gig or whether you’d be happier elsewhere. Weigh the relative pros and cons of leaving versus staying, in terms of whatever’s most important to you — be it salary, benefits, and other financial perks, workload and flexibility, or the company culture and opportunities for promotion and advancement — in order to ensure that the grass really is greener on the other side.

If, however, you don’t have a new job waiting in the wings, you will want to tread very carefully before you make a move to resign. Consider how long you would be on the job hunt, were you to quit. Depending on the industry, it can take anywhere from one to six months — and, in this economy, sometimes even longer — to find a new position. A longer-than-average search can be self-perpetuating, if it leads to a big gap between jobs on your resume: some employers will look askance at candidates who have been without work for a significant amount of time, as opposed to candidates who are already gainfully employed. Unless your work situation is absolutely intolerable and you can’t survive another single day, you may be better served by just gritting your teeth and continuing to show up to work, while you try to secure another, better job.

No matter how you may hate your job, resigning on bad terms can irreparably damage your personal brand and reputation, as well as hurt your future career prospects.

Give your boss the bad news in person

Once you’ve resolved yourself to quitting, you need to line all of your ducks in a row. First thing’s first: you’ll have to deliver the bad news to your higher-ups. Before you go blabbing to every one of your co-workers about how you’re moving onto bigger and better things, notify management of your decision to leave, lest they catch word of it from elsewhere first. Nothing would be worse than for your boss to learn that you were quitting through the gossip mill. Make sure they hear it from the horse’s mouth first.

And you need to deliver the news in person. Not over the phone, not by e-mail or text message, but face-to-face. However awkward and uncomfortable it might be, giving notice in person is a matter of basic professionalism, courtesy, and respect for the people who’ve employed you up to this point. Bite the bullet, book a meeting or appointment, and break the news to them.

Get your story straight

Your boss is understandably going to want to know why you’re bailing. Rehearse what you want to say beforehand, so that you’re not caught off-guard. Be honest — but not too honest. Don’t disclose any more than you need to. Quitting a job is a lot like ending a relationship: you want to spare the ego of the other party as much as possible. Some supervisors will take the news of an employee resigning hard, and will view your quitting as an act of desertion; they may suspect that you’re defecting to a competitor, or regard your departure as an indictment of their managerial skills. Even if any of this is true, there’s little to be gained from kicking your boss when they’re down, as it’s likely to only incite anger and make your exit all the more difficult.

It’s much better, for both your sake and your manager’s, to frame your reasons for leaving in terms of your own professional goals and desires, as opposed to your dissatisfaction with your job or the company. In short, give them the “it’s not you, it’s me” routine. Explain that you’re looking for new responsibilities and possibilities for growth, and not that your old job bored you out of your mind or paid you like a pauper. Emphasize the positives of your time under your boss’ wing — the invaluable experience and skills you gained — but insist that another opportunity would be a better fit for you at this stage in your career, given your personal and professional development.

Be prepared for a counter-offer

Some managers, when faced with the prospect of losing a member of their team — and thereby having to hire and retrain someone new for the position — will attempt to convince you to stay. Your boss might dangle the carrots of a pay raise or a promotion to keep you around. Even if you’re tempted by the counter-offer, don’t accept it on the spot. Tell your boss that you’ll consider it, and then take some time to think it over. Conversely, if you’ve already made up your mind to leave or simply aren’t interested in staying, remain steadfast in your decision and politely decline their proposal.

For what it’s worth, I would generally recommend against being talked into staying (unless the counter-offer is a considerable improvement over your current position). Think long and hard about whether you really want to leave, and what it would take for you to keep your job, before you announce your resignation. Because, frankly, once the genie’s been let out, there’s no getting it back into the bottle. Even if you’re talked into sticking around, you’ve already shown your hand — in your employer’s eyes, you’re a flight risk. At worst, the counter-offer may just be a stall tactic: having concluded that you can’t be relied upon for the long haul, your boss may only want to keep you around long enough for the company to find a suitable replacement, at which time you’ll be given your marching orders. At best, in a year’s time you’ll be reminded of why you wanted to quit in the first place, and soon enough you’ll be back in your manager’s office, with another letter of resignation in hand.

Terminating your employment isn’t a decision to be taken lightly or impulsively.

Give adequate notice

Some managers will respond to your notice of resignation by ordering you to gather your personal effects and having you escorted off the premises immediately, because your continued employment would jeopardize the security of the company’s trade secrets. Others, however, will expect you to work your notice, while they look for a capable successor.

How much notice you need to provide depends on several different considerations, including your rank within the company. While most staffers can get away with giving only two weeks’ notice, managers, executives, and others in more senior roles will likely need to provide more time, since they will be more difficult to replace. Review your original offer letter, employment agreement, HR manuals, employee handbook, or any other such documents for any provisions about the period of notice you’re required to provide before leaving the job. If you’re in any doubt, consult a lawyer.

Prepare a succession plan

Quitting might be a huge load off your shoulders, but odds are that it will make the lives of everyone else around you a little rougher. After all, your resignation will probably increase the workload for others, at least temporarily (and perhaps longer, depending on how quickly your vacancy is filled). Do what you can, both before and during your notice, to soften the blow, so that your boss and co-workers aren’t left completely in the lurch.

While there’s never a good time to quit, at least from the perspective of your employer, some moments are definitely worse than others. For example, if your team is working on a big project, a sudden resignation from one of their members could seriously undermine their efforts. Consider how much time you’ll need to finish your most urgent tasks and responsibilities, and schedule your exit around their completion. After you’ve officially given notice, tie up as many loose ends as possible, and make every effort to make the transition as seamless as possible. Offer to assist and train your successor, as well as to introduce them to important clients and vendors. Leave notes, or even a manual, to make it easier for the next person to learn the ropes of the position. Doing so will make your employer more disposed to dropping a kind word on your behalf as a reference.

Quitting a job is a lot like ending a relationship: you want to spare the ego of the other party as much as possible.

Keep your resignation letter short and sweet

After you’ve spoken to your superiors, you’ll need to prepare a letter of resignation, to be submitted either to their desk or to HR (you can compose it beforehand, too, if you like). Keep it concise, professional, and to-the-point. Don’t use the letter to bid a teary-eyed farewell to your colleagues and co-workers, or fondly reminisce about all of the good times you had at the office Christmas parties or bowling nights; there will be other opportunities for you to say goodbye. Nor should you use your letter as a vehicle for airing your various grievances with the company, like the former Whole Foods staffer, who last year shared his two-thousand-plus word resignation letter with the entire company (by e-mail), denouncing the chain and its corporate philosophy, along with several of his co-workers.

Simply put, the letter of resignation provides your employer with a formal statement, above your signature, that proves you have voluntarily agreed to terminate your employment (and were not fired or otherwise let go); nothing more, nothing less. In all likelihood, it will be stored in your permanent personnel file, where few living human beings will ever clap eyes upon it again. Treat it as a legal document, not a personal testament. In no more than a couple of sentences, express your appreciation for everything that your employer has done for you, indicate your desire and intention to pursue another opportunity, and specify an end date at which point your resignation will be effective — full stop. Keep your stories and/or beefs to yourself.

Don’t let loose lips sink your ship

This is a big one. Resist the urge to trash your former employer (or, for that matter, gloat about your new job), either during or after your resignation. These kinds of things have a way of getting back to the people you’re badmouthing, and can only do your career harm over the long haul. For example, even if you don’t plan on listing your former employer as a reference, the hiring manager for your prospective next job might still give them a ring to get the full backstory on you. The last thing you want is for your old boss to have heard about you slagging them on your way out, when they’re on the other end of a phone call with the person who could be your next boss.

And remember: you never know when you and your former colleagues and supervisors might end up crossing paths again. It’s a small world, after all, and there’s always a chance that you could end up working with (or for) the same people, especially if you’re remaining in the same industry. Nor is it completely unheard of for people to eventually return to a previous employer. You’re better off not closing any doors or burning any bridges that might prove valuable to you in the future. More often than not, discretion is the better part of valour.

It’s a small world, after all, and there’s always a chance that you could end up working with (or for) the same people, especially if you’re remaining in the same industry.

Push yourself to the finish line

I hate to keep going back to Seinfeld, but as George found out in a different episode, there’s something to be said about leaving on a high note. When you’ve given notice and are already looking forward to your new or next job, it can be easy to shift into cruise control for those last few weeks — to just idle around in your office, counting down the hours until your last day. But rather than coast during this final stretch, you should push yourself to work hard to the very end, completing as much outstanding work and projects as you can before you depart. Finishing strong will ensure that you leave on a high note, and that you’re remembered, by your superiors and your co-workers alike, as a valuable member of the team who didn’t slack off, even on the way out.

It’s that last, but lingering, memory that will matter most for your future prospects. Think about it this way: quitting will be the very last piece of official business, the very last “project,” that you’ll ever have to carry out for your soon-to-be former company. Depending on how you choose to comport yourself, it may even come to define your legacy there. You don’t want a negative impression of you as an employee and colleague to be the last thing people remember about you from your time at the company.

Quitting in a huff might give you a temporary feeling of satisfaction or vindication (especially if you feel as though you’ve been wronged by your employer or company). But it also will tar you with the reputation of being an unprofessional malcontent, and that label can be hard to shake. Resigning from your job the right way, with equal parts class and grace, will not only help your employer and colleagues cope with, and prepare for, your impending absence. It will also ensure that you preserve important networking opportunities, contacts, and relationships, from which you may benefit professionally in the future. Leave the same way you came into the job — with your head held up high.

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