Face it. You will eventually quit your job. It may be this year. It may be next. It may be ten years from now. But it’s inevitable. It’s only a matter of time. The only real question is: How do you pivot (professionally) without burning your bridges?
After all, you may want to come back. I left one company, Thomas Nelson, and eventually returned and became the CEO. You never know. At the very least, you may need a reference.
Unfortunately, many people don’t always end their tenure at a company as well as they began. The key is to begin with the end in mind. As leaders, we should be intentional about everything we do—even quitting.
Let’s start with the outcome we want. You want your employer and fellow employees to celebrate your contributions, grieve your departure, and eagerly welcome you back if ever given the chance.
It’s possible, but only if you handle your departure well.
Before you turn in your resignation—or even begin looking for another job—let me suggest that you consider the following seven actions.
1. Determine to Exit with Dignity and Honor
This is where it starts. How you leave a job says way more about our character than how we start. It’s all about a decision. You really can leave on a good note.
Take the moral high ground. Don’t speak ill of your supervisor, your coworkers, or the company. It will only make you look small and petty.
It’s amazing how negative comments have a way of spreading—and moving up the org chart. It’s a small world. And the industry you are working in is smaller still.
You never know when you may be working for someone you’re working with now. You never know when you may want to come back. Leave the door open. As a CEO, I’ve always paid attention to how people leave. It influences whether I’m willing to write a letter of recommendation or serve as a reference. It makes a difference.
2. Count the Cost of Leaving Your Present Job
Someone once said, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. But sometimes we forget: it still has to be mowed!” How true.
I was talking with a young pastor who was irate with his board. “They just don’t get it,” he said. He was already working on securing a new post.
“Look,” I said after about twenty minutes, “I’m not saying you shouldn’t go. But don’t kid yourself. The same knuckleheaded elders are at that church too. In fact, they’re at every church. Could this be an opportunity for you to grow in your leadership by staying? What would become possible for you in the future if you learn to lead these very kind of people?”
Every job has its pluses and minuses. I’m happier in my work today than I’ve ever been. But I have bad days too.
The key is to be realistic. To me, it’s more important to be going toward something, rather than moving away from something.
3. Give Your Employer a Chance to Address Your Issues
You need to carefully identify what the real issues are. Is the problem your current job, your boss, a coworker, the system, the whole company, what?
If you don’t tell your supervisor, he or she can’t fix it. Who knows what’s possible—a different job description, department, schedule? You might just be surprised at how different your experience can be once your key issues are addressed.
Of course, they might not be able to fix it even if they know what it is. But unless you give them a chance, you’ll never know. If you can’t work it out, then make sure you give your employer ample time to find a replacement and plan for a smooth transition.
4. Honor Your Commitments to Your Current Employer
Whether you have an employment contract or not, you have a “duty of loyalty.” This means that you are expected to provide an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.
Don’t grow slack in your work or let things fall through the cracks. You want to turn your position over to your successor in tip-top shape. You don’t want your successor saying, “No wonder she left. It’s a miracle she wasn’t fired. She left us with a mess.”
Like it or not, your successor will be the primary steward of your reputation at the company. You want her to say, “Wow! She left some big shoes to fill. If I can do the job half as well as she did, I will be a success!” Or, “She left everything in great shape. The files were well-organized and I knew the status of every project. The transition was seamless.”
5. Don’t Look for Another Job on Company Time or with Company Email
In essence, this is stealing. Your employer is paying you to work for her. Your time—at least during work hours—belongs to her. She provides you with an email account to use for company business. It doesn’t belong to you.
Worse, everything you ever send or receive via company email is retained for years—even if you delete it locally. This includes complaints about your boss or coworkers, discussions with prospective employers (or competitors), fights with your spouse. Everything.
It can come back to bite you. Believe me.
In my previous leadership position, we had an executive who left badly. Someone suggested he had conspired with a competitor prior to leaving. So I had our HR department check the email servers. Sure enough, they found a mountain of evidence, and the discovery had negative consequences for him and, unfortunately, his family.
6. Don’t Share Proprietary Information with Prospective Employers
This should be obvious. It’s a simple matter of honesty. Company data, reports, contacts, and so on are assets of the company.
Using them for your own benefit is no different than stealing physical property. And providing them to a prospective employer is theft.
As an employer myself, I would instantly break off discussions with any prospective employee if they volunteered to give me information from their present employer. They may think they’re enticing me to hire them. What they are really doing is revealing that they have no moral compass whatsoever. These are not the kind of people I want infecting my corporate culture.
Even if you don’t have an employment agreement with the confidentiality provision in it, act as though you do. No one wants a cheat, a tell-all, or a gossip.
7. Don’t Conspire with Others to Leave the Company
In 1986, Robert Wolgemuth and I left the company we both worked for. We ended up starting a new publishing company called Wolgemuth & Hyatt Publishers. We left within weeks of one another, but we did not discuss going into business prior to our departure.
We wanted to be able to say with integrity that we had not left with plans to start something else together. But I have seen others take a different path and usually with disastrous consequences.
You want your current employer rooting for you. You want to be able to use him or her as a reference. If you are any good at your job, your employer will hate losing you. If you attempt to take other employees with you—especially good employees—it will only add insult to injury. More than likely, it will burn a bridge that you may well need later.
Finally, if you are determined to quit, then don’t discuss your decision with other employees until you have discussed it with your supervisor. This is a simple matter of respect. The last thing you want is for him or her to “hear it through the grapevine.”
With a little planning, anyone can make a graceful exit. Life is short. The world is small—and cold. You don’t need to create any unnecessary enemies. You’ve already made an investment in your job. Now make one in your career. Think of the future, and keep the end in mind.