How To Leave A Job Gracefully: Last Impressions Can Influence Your Career

How To Leave A Job Gracefully: Last Impressions Can Influence Your Career

02.11.15Ron Ashkenas

Show your integrity and maintain your key relationships

A couple of years ago, a senior consultant left our firm to take a managerial position with one of our clients. Although sad to see him go, we were pleased that he had an opportunity to try something different in his career. Before moving on however this colleague took the initiative to develop a plan for transitioning his project work, hand off his contacts, and close off his administrative responsibilities. In addition he gave flowers to the support staff and personally thanked each person he had worked closely with over the years. In other words this colleague made it his business to “leave well”.

Unfortunately not everyone puts as much thought into the process of leaving as our colleague. In fact many just gather their belongings, take their severance package, say a cursory goodbye, and slam the door. This is particularly prevalent in the financial services and investment industries where senior people bolt for competitors, taking clients and portfolios with them. But it happens in other sectors as well – often prompting a scramble to reassign work and salvage key relationships.

Why do talented, bright, and capable people figuratively burn their bridges behind them? Don’t they realize that if they are staying in the same industry or geography, they might want to conduct business or establish some sort of relationship with previous employers and colleagues in the future – something that’s tough to do so when a bad taste lingers from the past? And don’t they understand that their reputation – which is influenced by last impressions as much as first ones – follows them throughout their career?

The reality is that although people rationally understand that they are free agents and can move to another opportunity at any time, leaving a job is usually an anxiety-provoking experience – and may trigger irrational behavior. People who have been with one firm for some time may feel guilty about leaving after the company has invested in them. Others may be unconsciously concerned that they are abandoning their colleagues and leaving them in the lurch. And some people may fear that they are disappointing a mentor or senior leader who has been particularly helpful in their career.

Given these emotions (many of which are unconscious) it makes sense that some people avoid the issue of leaving entirely. Instead of talking about it openly, they keep it secret and spring it on their employer and colleagues when it’s a fait accompli – and then run out the door as fast as possible.

Since the days of being loyal to one organization for an entire career are long gone, moving from one company to another is something that all of us will probably do. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, managers and professionals today stay with an organization for an average of 5.7 years – which means that over the course of a 35-year career, they will switch employers five to six times. The frequency of job shifting is even more pronounced in the private sector (almost double the rate of government employees) and in industries such as professional and business services. Many experts believe that Millennials are even less loyal, and predict that their serial job changes (perhaps as often as every three years) will become the norm.

Given this high rate of job churn, here are some guidelines that might be helpful for leaving a job gracefully:

  1. Find a confidante in your company that you can talk to early in the process – before you actually make the decision to leave. Obviously this needs to be somebody that you can trust and will not tell others. Use this person to help you assess the pros and cons of the new position, and also to think through the implications and impact that leaving will have on your colleagues.

  2. Take the initiative to develop a transition plan for your responsibilities, and think through the timing of when you announce and when you actually leave so that you can complete it. If you know who your successor will be, then spend time getting her oriented. If no successor is apparent, then help your boss to consider the criteria for possible candidates, or the alternative of spreading your responsibilities among several people. As you do this, make sure that you are not only transitioning your work, but also your relationships, both inside and outside the company. And finally, if you are going to a direct competitor, and need to resign as soon as you announce your decision, then at least try to give your boss written notes about what needs to be covered and who needs to be contacted. And if you do have to leave “in a hurry”, at least tell your boss that you understand the difficulties it might cause and say that you are sorry.

  3. Lastly, make a point of having a private “farewell chat” with key people that you’ve worked with, both in and out of your department, and even outside the company if that’s appropriate. Talk about what you’ve learned from them, or what you appreciated about working     with them. Ask them for advice about how to be successful in your new role. But mostly thank them for being part of your life over the past number of years, and offer to stay in touch. Remember that most work is personal, and relationships are the currency for future opportunities.

Most of us will have a number of jobs in our careers – which means that learning how to leave well may be just as important as learning how to get started.

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Ron Ashkenas' blog post on Forbes. Join the discussion.


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