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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

It's Not You, It's Me: How to Break Up With Professional Contacts Without Making Them Cry

Let’s face it. These days, the opportunities you have to network are fast, easy, and abundant. You can connect with people via online networking channels, like LinkedIn and Twitter, as well as in person—basically, your ability to create meaningful connections is virtually unlimited.

But what happens when those relationships don’t turn out to be as rosy, productive, or compatible as you’d like? You find yourself in the professional version of “I’m just not that into you.” But you don’t want to abruptly cut those people off or risk burning any valuable bridges. What should you do?

Let’s look at three common break-up situations professionals run into and how to navigate them while keeping your reputation intact.

Situation #1: The Supplier Who’s Just Not Cutting It

Supplier relationships—like the graphic artist who’s making your web site look awesome or the marketing agency that’s producing your company’s press releases—are critical to the success of your job or business.

As you or your employer grow and evolve, there may come a time when that supplier just can’t meet your needs anymore. Maybe what you need from him is more than what he can provide. Maybe the quality of work has diminished. Or maybe she’s getting busier with other clients and can’t attend to your personalized needs and expectations.

Now, it’s time to have the break-up conversation.

First, start with the good news. Focus on how the supplier has helped you move your business forward and the wins he or she has helped you achieve. Thank him or her for those contributions.

Then, move into the challenges you’re experiencing. Elaborate on your current needs versus the supplier’s capabilities. For example, you could say something like, “My business model is changing. What I need is a faster response time on website changes and a design that better accommodates my unique business offers. Based on the recent attempts to accommodate those needs and the challenges we’ve experienced, I believe my business requires a new solution.”

Wrap up this part of the conversation by asking for the supplier to develop a plan to sunset your partnership, and ask for his or her cooperation in helping during your transition to a new supplier.

One note: Whether you’re running your own business or managing suppliers for your employer, be sure to consult your contract for termination notification guidelines, costs, and other implications of cancelling the partnership.

And next time, when you’re starting a relationship with a new supplier, write your contract with the “divorce” in mind. While there’s always a rosy glow when you’re starting work with a supplier, the contract you have with them ensures that when it’s time to separate, the terms to do so are clearly spelled out.

Situation #2: The Junior Employee You’re Tired of Helping

You’ve taken him to lunch myriad times in the company café. You’ve coached him through numerous conversations, consulted on presentations, and offered your best career advice.

But Junior just isn’t getting it, and you find yourself answering the same questions repeatedly. Or maybe, you’re simply ready to move on to another mentoring opportunity. Either way, it’s time to break it off.

Instead of thinking about it as breaking bad news to him, think of this as making a new request. And remember the primary rule of making a request? Tell him how it benefits him.

Start by recapping what you’ve accomplished. “Teddy, it’s been great helping you navigate this time in your career. I’ve seen you make great strides in making presentations and leading meetings.”

Now, make the request. “Now, I see a couple big challenges ahead of you: developing more relationships with clients and learning to prepare contracts. To start working toward those goals, I suggest that you connect with leaders in the accounting and customer service departments.”

Then, tell him why it’s good for him. “By working with those teams, you’re going to get a different perspective on how the organization runs. That will continue rounding out your professional experiences and help you build a more diverse network. I’d be happy to connect you with a few of my key contacts in those departments.”

After you make the introductions, ask him to give you a progress update every few months, and then—voilà!—start looking for a new “Junior” to mentor.

Situation #3: The Pointless Coffee Dates

Some coffee dates are awesome and lead to exciting things that help you move your career or business forward. Others seem like a weak excuse to get out of the office or simply suck up time on a less-than-full calendar.

However, often—and I know this has been the case for me—things start getting busier and you simply can’t (or don’t want to) say yes to every request for coffee.

When that’s the case, it’s time to move on. Here are two alternatives you can use to break up with someone who’s been consistent on the coffee circuit.

Defer Due to Workload

“Sonya, with my recent schedule, I’ve had the luxury of being able to grab coffee with you fairly often. Now, however, my business demands are really taking precedent. I’ll have to take a bye on coffee for the next couple of months. Let’s agree that if either of us needs urgent assistance from the other, we’ll shoot over a quick text or email.”

Defer in Favor of a Group Meeting

Many experts say that a great way to deflect individual coffee meetings is to offer a group solution instead. So, try something like, “My schedule and priorities no longer allow the luxury of one-on-one coffee meetings. However, on the first Friday of each month, I’ll be hosting a meet-up at Local Coffee House with a number of my contacts. A group meeting will be a way for me to connect with more people than a one-on-one meeting allows. I hope you can join!”

Just as in your personal life, your professional life is enriched by relationships. However, that means you need to constantly be thinking about how those relationships serve your goals and how you serve the goals of your contacts. Being able to manage your relationships—in both good times and bad—is key to your professional success.

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