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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Changing Jobs

4 Steps to Leaving a Job With Your Relationships and Reputation Intact

There’s no easy way around it. Quitting your job is awkward at best and downright disastrous at worst. And although you may have fantasies of pulling a Steven Slater à la JetBlue, I wouldn’t recommend it—no matter how much you loved or hated your last gig.

So, how exactly does one quit with grace? On its own, the fact that you’ve found greener pastures—whether that’s with a new job or taking some time off—is a statement about how you feel about your current job: It isn’t good enough, and you’re moving on.

But that doesn’t mean that’s the message you should be sending your soon-to-be-former colleagues. In fact, for the sake of your professional relationships (not to mention reputation) moving forward, you always want to part on good terms.

I’ve handed in a few resignations in my time, varying from happy to hesitant, and here’s how I did it.

1. Stay Absolutely Positively Positive

Nobody likes a negative Nelly—ever. So if you’re planning an exodus, dishing the dirt on your employer is never a good idea. I’m not saying you need to sugarcoat anything, but if you have any less than fuzzy feelings about your job, keep them to yourself.

As soon as you’ve decided to pull the trigger, make a point of keeping the negativity to a minimum in the office. Smile. Tell people they’re doing a good job. Say nice things about your company and your team.

If you’re on your way out, it helps everyone if they feel like it’s a tough decision for you and that you feel you’re leaving a good organization. Even if that isn’t totally true, your colleagues still have to wake up and go to work after you’re gone, so there’s no reason to make them feel bad about what they’re stuck with if you’ve moved on to greener pastures.

2. Schedule a Face to Face—or Several

When you quit, feelings will be hurt. I know—this is business and feelings aren’t supposed to be part of the equation—but when it comes to people you’ve been working with (or managing) for years, they are.

Not everyone will be as excited about you moving on as you are, but you can soften the blow by delivering the news in person. Finding out your colleague is leaving in a team meeting doesn’t exactly inspire loyalty, so save yourself the drama and spill the beans to those who matter most, before the news goes public.

Start with your boss (here’s how to do it), then tell him or her you’ll be sharing the news personally with your colleagues as well. This is not a step to be taken lightly—choose your people carefully. Title and tenure aren’t necessarily the most important factors, but rather, consider who you’ve worked with most closely and connected with most over the years. Basically, figure out whose opinion you really value, and make sure they hear about your exodus first.

Tell your colleagues that you had a tough decision to make, how much you’ve liked working with them, and how much your professional relationship has meant to you. Thank them for all they’ve done to get you into the position to take the next step in your career, and tell them you’d like to stay in touch after you’re gone. Do this genuinely for everyone on your list (and then, you know, actually do stay in touch), and you’ll assure you have strong supporters long after you’ve moved on.

3. Get Your S**t Together

This was a toss-up for point #1, so pay attention. If you want to leave on good terms, then leave with your house in order. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had colleagues leave, doing everything right—until the rest of us had to pick up where they left off and found a convoluted maze of paperwork and loose ends.

Don’t do this—I repeat, do not do this, ever. If you’re going to leave and you don’t want to be blacklisted for life, make sure you have your s**t lined up before you walk out that door. Nothing ruins a reputation like leaving a mess for someone else to clean up. It doesn’t matter how many manuals you’ve created or how many people you’ve trained, if you haven’t tied up all your loose ends before you walk out that door, I guarantee someone will be cursing you before you have the chance to ask for a reference (which, by the way, you will need one day).

If it takes overtime and working on weekends, do it. Dig through your email, listen to all those voicemails you’ve ignored, and rifle through those mysterious pieces of paper floating on your desk. Run the “hit by a bus” scenario to determine what your colleagues couldn’t figure out easily if you were suddenly hit by a bus, and fix that, pronto.

Most importantly, keep a detailed guide for anything out of the ordinary, including contact information for people who’ve been helpful in the past. Put yourself in the position of the colleagues who will be filling in for you: Remember the tasks that stressed you out the most, then make sure you’ve given them the tools to handle those tasks with ease. While they may not immediately appreciate your thoroughness, I guarantee they’ll be cursing you less after you’ve gone, and that means one more bridge intact.

Once you’ve got that handled, you’re ready for step #4.

4. Leave Early

The long goodbye. While it’s one of my favorite novels, it’s not so great when it comes to your exit from a job. While most of us likely dream of the entire office dusting up a fantastic kerfuffle upon our departure, the reality is no one needs the extended remix of your quitting.

Once you’ve decided when your last day will be, plan to hand in your access badge a few hours before quitting time. Your last day will be awkward, no matter what you do, so save everyone the pain and suffering and use this opportunity to cut out a bit early. Make a round around the office to say goodbye, knowing everyone really important to you already knows where to find you—and where you’ll be for an early happy hour—and that’s all you need to do.

Don’t drag out your exit any longer than needed, and everyone will thank you for it. Not to mention this might be the first and last time you’ll ever get off work early.

There’s just one caveat to avoiding the long goodbye: Make sure everyone knows this isn’t goodbye. Tell people where you’re going and how they can get in touch with you. If it’s not appropriate to send a company-wide email sharing this info—sometimes it really isn’t—then make sure at least one person has the info, then as you’re going through your goodbyes, tell everyone that Bob has your contact information, and that you’d love to grab coffee or a drink after work once you’re settled. Keep it light and social, then head for the door.

Whether it’s for your dream job or just the next best thing for you, don’t forget the connections you’ve made thus far are every bit as important as the gig you’re going to. Keep things positive and civil, and you’ll assure everyone remembers you as a standup guy or gal.

Photo of exit sign courtesy of Shutterstock.