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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Changing Jobs

How to (Gracefully!) Handle All the Messy, Awkward Parts of Giving Notice at Work

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The time has come. You’re going to quit, and you’re getting ready to put the whole two-weeks’ notice plan in motion. Take a deep breath. The hardest part—getting a new job, getting into grad school, or making the decision to do something new—is over.

Still, you’re not quite done. Because how you approach your resignation and the impression you make on your way out can disproportionately color how your boss and colleagues remember you. So you’ll want to take the time to prepare for all the ways giving notice at work can get messy or awkward.

You may already know the basics of executing a graceful resignation—if not, you should definitely read up on everything you need to know about giving two weeks’ notice.

But what about those other lingering questions you don’t even know who to ask? The ones that tap into concerns like how emotions play into the process or what happens if your boss tells you to leave immediately.

Well, not to worry. We’ve tacked a few of them for you here.

  1. What Do I Do if My Boss Isn’t in the Office?
  2. Is it Okay to Cry When I Tell People?
  3. How Do I Deal With Other People’s Emotions?
  4. What Do I Do if My Manager Gets Mad?
  5. How Do I Explain Why I’m Leaving?
  6. How Do I Tell Everyone Else Without Pissing Off My Boss?
  7. Do I Have to Tell People Where I’m Going?
  8. What if They Make Me Leave Immediately?
  9. What if My Boss Tries to Get Me to Stay Longer?

Question 1 What Do I Do if My Boss Isn’t in the Office?

So you’ve signed and sealed a new offer and are ready to give notice as soon as possible (if you want to avoid cutting into whatever limited break you were able to negotiate between gigs). But your boss is on vacation, works remotely, or just happens to be working remotely—today of all days!

It’s best to give notice in person, says HR executive and Muse Career Coach Angela Smith—so if your boss will be back in a day or two and you can afford to wait, that’d be ideal.

But that’s not always the case. If your manager is working remotely or on vacation but reachable, Smith recommends sending a quick note along the lines of: “Something’s come up that I need to talk to you about. Do you have 15 minutes for a quick call?” And if you’re disturbing them on vacation, apologize for the interruption.

Once you’re on the phone—or even better, on a video chat so that you’re at least face to face—make sure you’re “acknowledging the impersonal nature of it,” Smith says. And “be really descriptive about why you came to the decision, which can usually get lost in translation.” In other words, you don’t want to be disingenuous, but you do want to make up for the fact that you’re not in the same room by explaining why you made this choice.

You might also want to be proactive and schedule a follow up with your boss when they’re back in the office to go over a transition plan, which you’d think through ahead of time. That way, even if the timing isn’t great, you’re taking responsibility to make the process as easy as possible on them.

If your boss is away and truly unavailable—for example, “hiking in the mountains with no service”—Smith suggests going to their boss or a peer of theirs with whom “you can start laying the groundwork.” And although this scenario would be pretty unfortunate, you can make the best of it by putting together a stellar transition plan.

Question 2 Is it Okay to Cry When I Tell People?

“Tears are sometimes inevitable,” says HR consultant and leadership and career coach Jenn McKay. That’s especially true if you’re leaving a place or people you like, a company that taught you a lot, or a boss you got along really well with.

Smith agrees, and “if you’re lucky enough to have a job that you cry over when you leave, that’s kind of a good thing.”

That being said, she recommends trying to contain the tears during your conversation with your boss, “so you’re not blubbering or sobbing.” If you do get emotional, you might want to circle back later once you’re more composed and offer to have a more in-depth conversation about the transition. By doing that, you’re “reaffirming the image that you know what to do, you know the steps to take, and still can be relied upon to get the job done during the transition period,” Smith adds.

When Smith knew she was going to have trouble giving notice at one of her past jobs, she practiced with a friend ahead of time. She still cried when she talked to her boss, and was surprised that he got emotional, too, reflecting that, “It was nice for me to know that it was reciprocated, that the work I’d done was really valued.”

Question 3 How Do I Deal With Other People’s Emotions?

As Smith discovered, you might not be the only one who’s emotional about your departure. You might have a boss who’s excited for you but also disappointed to lose a strong member of the team, or a co-worker who’s happy you found a great new opportunity and at the same time a little jealous.

“Try not to take it on. You can’t manage other people’s emotions for them,” Smith says. You can acknowledge and appreciate their feelings—like “if someone’s sad you’re leaving or going to miss you, that’s a sign of a good relationship.”

But, she adds, “don’t try to fix it or get them to feel better or be happy about it. They’ve got to work through that on their own.”

Question 4 What Do I Do if My Manager Gets Mad?

At the very least, you’d hope your manager would stay professional and avoid reacting with full-fledged fury when you notify them of your departure.

But if they do get mad, make sure you “stay calm and professional,” says Muse career coach Christie Artis.

“Let them know you understand how they are feeling, and the decision to leave is not personal,” she adds, and make it clear that “you are committed to doing everything possible to set the team and company up for success prior to leaving.”

Giving notice can be especially complicated when the employee and manager don’t have a great relationship, McKay says, and a boss might “claim that they thought the person was going to be loyal.”

In this situation, it’s particularly important to process your decision ahead of time and plan a response you can stick to—one that focuses on the opportunity you’re headed toward rather than one that gets bogged down in “terrible toxic work environment stuff.”

That way, you can take a deep breath and say something like, “I’m sorry this is really difficult news. I can give you some time with it and we can meet again to discuss my transition plan.”

Question 5 How Do I Explain Why I’m Leaving?

Even if you feel like you’re escaping a toxic torture chamber of an office on the inside, try to project a calmer, more positive, and forward-looking attitude on the outside.

“Your message to your manager needs to be the highest-level message,” McKay says. It could be that you got an offer for a position at a different level or that the opportunity comes with a great benefits package. You can try something like, “I need to do this for my career,” or, “This job is giving me an opportunity I just couldn’t turn down,” or even, “I decided I needed something different.”

Think this all through in advance so that you don’t have to articulate it on the spot. “A manager is going to want to know something, and people above them are going to want to know why, so give some talking point,” McKay says. But keep it simple.

And focus primarily on your next step. “Always start with appreciation for all that you’ve learned and gained in your current role,” Artis says, even if you’re leaving out of dissatisfaction, “and shift your focus to what you’re excited for in your next career chapter.”

Question 6 How Do I Tell Everyone Else Without Pissing Off My Boss?

“Your manager should always be the first to know,” Artis says. But there’s likely a long line of people beyond your boss who’ll need to know once that part’s done. “In that conversation, align with [your manager] on the communication approach. Who will tell whom when? What is the message you’ll both deliver to others about why you are leaving?”

The more professional you are with your boss, the more likely they’ll trust you to communicate your departure to others. While it’s expected that you’ll start sharing the news with your colleagues verbally, you might want to touch base with your manager before sending out any official goodbye emails.

McKay suggests asking whether they feel comfortable with you sending out a note to clients, key stakeholders in certain projects, or the people you collaborate with regularly to let them know you’re leaving and address the transition. If your boss is hesitant, offer to share a draft with them first. It’s a way to “partner with your manager but still take a bit of control,” she explains.

Question 7 Do I Have to Tell People Where I’m Going?

More often than not, one of the first questions people will ask you is: “Where are you headed?”

But if for some reason you can’t share that information yet—maybe your new company needs to announce it formally—or if you don’t want to share it, know that you don’t have to.

You can keep your answer generic, Smith says, referencing the industry, size of company, or role you’ll be playing. For example, “I’m going to a small startup where I’m going to be working on…” or, “I’m changing industries,” or, “I’m going to a smaller company in [city or town].”

Or you can simply say, “I’d rather not disclose that right now.”

But there’s an exception, according to Artis. “If you’ve signed a non-compete agreement you may be legally required to tell [your company] where you are going and adhere to contract agreements you signed,” she says. Even in that scenario, however, you don’t have to share the information with everyone.

Question 8 What if They Make Me Leave Immediately?

Some companies prefer not to have employees who are on their way out stick around during their notice period, and will ask you to leave immediately or by the end of the day. They might do it across the board for anyone who leaves or on a case-by-case basis.

“If that’s going to happen you probably have a sense of that beforehand,” Smith says, because you’ll have seen it happen in the past. If you think it might go that way, make sure you prepare, both for your own sake and for your colleagues’ sakes. That means saving copies of performance reviews and anything you’ll need for your portfolio, making sure you have all your contacts and most important belongings, and writing up any crucial documentation for your boss or teammates.

Even if you had an inkling, it “can be pretty jarring” to be asked to pack up and leave, Smith says.

“Try not to take it personally,” she adds, though that’s easier said than done. “It’s an awkward position to be put in,” but remember that you can try to negotiate. Ask if you can have the rest of the day or a few hours to finish a certain project, hand something off, work on a transition plan, or say goodbye. Alternatively, you can ask to come back after hours or early in the morning so you can pack up without everyone’s eyes on you.

One of your concerns in this situation might be whether you’ll get paid for the notice period you’ve been asked not to serve out. “It’s completely appropriate to ask them to explain when you’ll receive your final pay, what the calculation will be, and when your insurance will terminate,” Smith says. “If possible, ask for it in writing, or follow up with an email to confirm the discussion.”

Question 9 What if My Boss Tries to Get Me to Stay Longer?

Take it as a compliment if your manager tries to get you to stay on for a longer transition period. But remember that it’s up you.

“If you do say no be sure to express how sorry you are that staying longer is not possible, but you’ll do everything in your power to ensure you set the team and company up for success before you leave,” Artis says. “Your goal is to leave on good terms and do the right thing for your team.”

And if your manager tries to get you to stay indefinitely and counters with a new title, a raise, or another perk? Artis urges you to think carefully about several questions if you’re tempted to change your mind:

  • What made you want to leave in the first place?
  • Would this new title or pay fix that?
  • Which opportunity is best for your long-term career growth and learning?
  • Which company fits your values best?
  • Which role utilizes your strengths and skills more?
  • Which job would you be most excited to get up and go to everyday?”

If you ultimately stick with your original decision to leave, Artis says, “be sure to express your gratitude and appreciation, and ensure you leave on the best terms possible.”

If you take nothing else away from this long list, remember this: Just as the final scene of a movie or book can elevate or sink the entire work, so too can your final act of giving notice solidify or mar an image of you as a great employee. Let that guide you, and you’ll be just fine.