How to Quit Your Job With Your Professional Reputation Completely Intact
John Livesay was the West Coast director for a major women’s magazine who was tasked with snagging new advertisers.
After he had been there for a decade, the company was restructured in 2009—and he got caught up in a round of layoffs.
But while most of his co-workers were storming out in a rage, Livesay did something that really caught his manager off guard—he offered to create a detailed turnover report to make sure his clients continued to get the care they deserved.
“I became very close to a lot of the big advertisers,” Livesay explains. “I’d gone to some of their weddings, and watched them have kids. I cared about them too much to just walk out.”
That professionalism paid off: Two years later, Livesay’s old boss remembered his good attitude and extra effort and rehired him for a new job at the company.
Livesay is what experts call a “boomerang employee,” or someone who leaves a company and then rejoins it down the line.
And that situation is not as uncommon these days as you might think.
According to a recent survey put out by Kronos and Workplace Trends, over three-quarters of HR professionals say they’re more open to the idea of rehiring a past employee than they were five years ago. Meanwhile, 40% of workers say they’d consider taking a boomerang position.
Numbers like these drive home just how important it can be to exit a company on a high note—which is why it’s critical to have a strong exit strategy in place before you turn in your notice.
To help you craft one, we tapped a handful of workplace pros to get the inside scoop on how to leave a company with grace—and under great terms.
1. Stay Mum Until You Break the News to Your Boss
If you know you’re about to quit, it can be soooooo tempting to divulge your secret to a work friend—changing jobs is a big step, and it’s only natural to want to talk it through with someone in your inner circle.
But as much as you want your work buddy to tell you that you’re doing the right thing, fight the temptation to dish.
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Kick off the quitting process the right way by telling your manager first.
“Many people make the error of whispering over the water cooler about how nervous they are to quit. Then their manager hears about it before they even step foot in their office,” says career pro Dana Manciagli, author of Cut the Crap, Get a Job! A New Job Search Process for a New Era.
Not only could this irritate your boss, but you’ve lost your chance to manage the narrative of why you’re leaving. Once word of your quitting has become office gossip, it can take a life of its own.
Instead, go into your manager’s office with a clear story line about why you are resigning, when you want your last day to be and how you want the news communicated to others in the company.
The last point is particularly important, because as Manciagli notes, there may be organizational or political issues to manage, and your manager may need to alert HR and others in the company before word gets out.
Whatever the case, work with your manager to clarify the timing and public details surrounding your decision so that you’re both sharing the same story.
As Harvard business administration professor Len Schlesinger told the Harvard Business Review last year: “There is only one story, told one way, and you stick to it. That way nobody can ever say they heard anything different.”
2. Don’t Immediately Consider a Counteroffer
We all want to be so essential to a company that it can’t run without us—which is why a counteroffer can be so appealing.
But our pros caution against going into your manager’s office thinking your resignation is really just the beginning of a negotiation.
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“I always recommend that folks go in confident—with their minds made up that they are leaving,” Manciagli says.
If the company does come back with a counteroffer, be realistic about why your boss is making it.
While it may be true that you’re a vital pillar of the organization, it’s more likely that your manager would rather throw money at the situation than deal with the turmoil caused by your departure.
And remember that a counteroffer isn’t a magic wand that will fix anything other than how you are being compensated. If there are other reasons why you want to leave, they are likely to remain, so you should weigh the pros and cons.
And, Manciagli says, if you do accept the counteroffer, you need to be prepared to recommit to your current job for a solid year—no more job hunting.
“You’ve got to show for at least the next year that you are fully committed—not one foot in and one foot out,” she says.
3. Be a Ray of Sunshine After You Give Notice
If your current job is a drag, calling it quits doesn’t give you free rein to talk poorly about the company or a colleague—to anyone.
“You may think there’s no way on earth you’re ever going to see this person again, and then—sure enough—they show up in another capacity five years later,” says Judy Robinett, a networking expert and author of How to Be a Power Connector: The 5+50+100 Rule for Turning Your Business Network Into Profits.”
The Better Strategy:
Off-the-cuff remarks or jabs made on social media are sometimes all it takes to burn a potentially important bridge.
So John Sullivan, an HR expert and professor of management at San Francisco State University, suggests adopting the “it’s not you, it’s me” mantra.
Translation: You guys are great. It’s nothing personal.
“If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” says Sullivan, adding that this is especially important if you have any hopes of being rehired in the future. “When you leave a job, you want people to say, ‘Good for you.’ ”
4. Try to Ensure a Smooth Transition
Sure, you may be fantasizing about how lost people will be without you, but if you want to keep that business relationship strong, you should put together a thoughtful action plan for those you leave behind.
Your decision to leave may mean that your manager will have to reshuffle your workflow so the ship doesn’t sink in your absence. If you help manage the situation, you’ll also help manage their feelings about you.
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Draft a solid transfer plan outlining all of your pending projects, your recommendations for wrapping them up and specific employees you plan to brief on what you’ve got cooking. You can even include a retooled job description.
Making your transition seamless is something your colleagues—and your boss and your boss’s boss—will appreciate.
“Imagine this as being the playbook that someone else picks up,” Manciagli says. “Show your manager you understand their situation—and that you want to be part of helping to fill that gap.”
5. Don’t Use Your Exit Interview as a Therapy Session
That last meeting with HR can be a potential minefield. While it may be tempting to unload about the company or share details about toxic colleagues, try to refrain.
That’s because there’s no such thing as anonymity or off-the-record comments.
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“You’re giving feedback to the company, and that HR person absolutely can and will share what they heard in some format,” Manciagli says. “So unless you have a positive, constructive solution to something you observed, don’t throw anybody under the bus.”
Sullivan takes it a step further, saying that effective action is rarely taken after the fact in these situations.
So if you drive home that your boss is ineffectual, not only will they hear about it—which burns a bridge—but, Sullivan says, it isn’t likely that HR will actually penalize that person.
“I’m not a fan of dishonesty, but usually nothing happens,” he says. “More often than not, it’s written down and put in a file.”
6. Remain Valuable Post-Departure
Chances are you’ve made some important connections at your current job, and it’s crucial to keep those relationships going strong.
“The most powerful asset you have is your network,” Robinett says. “It only takes 25 to 50 key people to get you anywhere you need to go.”
So don’t say sayonara to your daily duties—or your colleagues.
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In addition to being positive in those final weeks at a job—and creating a smooth transition—put in the effort to continue to build your reputation in your colleagues’ eyes even after you leave.
Start by considering how to add value to the picture they already have of you. So instead of just periodically checking in with a here’s-what’s-going-on-with-me email, elevate your approach by thinking of little ways to be helpful.
For example, send them news about relevant trends in your industry, forward useful articles or even facilitate key introductions when possible.
“Those are terrific value-adds you can do for people that will put you in their upper 5%,” Robinett says. “They’ll remember you and keep you top of mind.”
And who knows, that may just lead to your next great job.
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