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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Changing Jobs

How to Resign from Your Job When You're the Boss

Resigning from a job is never easy. There’s always concern about how you’re going to break the news to your boss and how she or she is going to react. But the first time I resigned from a management position, telling my boss was easy.

Then, I had to figure out how to tell my employees.

Before I could notify the team, my boss approached me, concerned about how I was going to position my departure from the small startup company. She told me she was worried that if I told the employees the truth—i.e., that I wasn’t passionate about the company or my position there anymore—that they might realize their own disinterest, follow suit, and leave.

So, she asked me to pin it on my boyfriend, who’d just moved an hour away for a new job. She wanted me to tell the team that I was following him, even though that meant forgoing the opportunity to grow with this startup.

And in an attempt to avoid burning bridges, I did it. Despite the fact that I’d already landed a great new job (with much more room for advancement) in the new city, I told my team that I was leaving my job to be with him. Their responses? “How cute!” or “Wow, you must really love him.”

Afterward, I realized that, while it’s certainly not a bad thing to make a bold move like that for a relationship, I wanted my employees to see that I was taking the necessary steps to advance my career as a driven professional—not “how cute.”

Although my exact situation may be unique, the overall challenge isn’t. As a departing manager, you have to consider how your employees are going to react when you tell them you’re moving on. Are they going to follow your lead and quit, too? Jump to the conclusion that if you’re leaving, the company’s going under? Worry that the department will go downhill without your leadership?

To avoid any unintended consequences, you have to put some thought into how you’re going to position the reason that you’re leaving. So, once you get through turning in the resignation letter to your boss (who would have thought that’d ever be the easy part?), here are some dos and don’ts for how to approach your team.

Don’t: Create Fear

In my experience—both as an employee whose boss resigned and as a manager who resigned myself—the minute a leader resigns, employees raise an eyebrow in suspicion. It’s a natural reaction to think, “Well, my boss is leaving—does he or she know something I don’t? Are layoffs coming? Should I leave, too?”

And that feeling is only perpetuated when the manager gives vague reasons about why he or she is leaving—like, “It’s just time for me to move on,” or “This isn’t the place for me anymore.”

You’ll get a much better response and avoid unnecessary fear if you’re specific about your decision. Which brings us to:

Do: Be as Truthful as Appropriate

I’m a big believer in transparency—something my corporate higher-ups may not always approve of. After all, your team is (most likely) made up of mature, professional adults. Why should you have to water down your purpose for leaving?

But it really comes down to what that purpose is. Announcing that you’re leaving because you disapprove of corporate leadership or are worried about more layoffs is likely going to burn bridges and crush any chances of a positive reference down the road. Plus, you’ll alarm your employees, even when they may very well have a different opinion (or your predictions about layoffs aren’t actually correct). In that case, you’re better off with the standard, “I’ve accepted a position with another company, and my last day will be next Friday.”

You may be leaving, however, because you found a position that lets you work from home, you’re jumping from the corporate world into the startup scene, or you are trying to break into a new industry. In that case, the move is all about you and your career path, and can easily be translated into an appropriate—and transparent—announcement to your employees.

Either way, think ahead and work with your direct supervisor to make sure that you’re both comfortable with how you plan to break the news.

Don’t: Break the News Over Email

As an employee, it’s typical to let your co-workers know of your resignation through a department-wide email: “It’s been great working with you guys, but I’m moving into a position at another company. Keep in touch!”

But as a manager, email isn’t the best way to go. Gathering your team together to make the announcement will make sure everyone finds out at the same time (rather than inciting a wave of whispered, “Did you see that email?”), and will allow you to gauge your employees’ reactions on the spot.

Are they unsurprised, as though they’d seen it coming? No further elaboration needed. Are they shocked, thinking the announcement came completely out of the blue? You’ll see it on their faces immediately, which will give you the perfect opportunity to clarify your intentions and answer questions.

Do: Answer Questions

On that note, one of the best things you can do to quell rumors and calm fears is to simply open up the floor to questions after you’ve made the announcement. Inevitably, your team is going to want to know more about what company you’re going to, what kind of position you’ll be in, as many details as they can find out about your reason for leaving, and what is going to happen to them when you’re gone.

Give the details that you (and your boss) feel comfortable providing, and your employees will have a much better understanding of your decision.

Do: Have a Go-Forward Plan

Over the years, I’ve learned that most experienced professionals expect that their bosses will leave eventually. And so, they may want to know more about your decision—but they’re often equally (or more) curious about what’s going to happen to them once you’re gone. Will they be hiring internally to backfill your position? Will the department get split up under the other, existing supervisors?

You may not know what the plan is yet, but having at least a few details about how the company and department plans to move forward after your departure—whether they’re planning to post the position, who they’ll be reporting to in the meantime—can help your employees feel more confident about their future at the company.

Even though you’re leaving the company (and you may feel like just sticking it to the man), it’s important for both you and your boss to feel comfortable about how you’ll announce your departure. Consider your employees’ feelings and future, and you’ll be able to make a graceful exit.

Photo of person leaving office courtesy of Shutterstock.