Got a new job? Congratulations. Make sure not to burn any bridges as you leave your current position.
Siobhan Green was ready to go when she handed in her two weeks’ notice. Her first job out of college, as an administrative and research assistant at a consulting firm, had not been a good fit, and she couldn’t wait to move on.
But she regrets how she spent her final days on the job: instead of finishing a report, she read magazines at her desk and chatted on the phone with her friends. Had the Internet been available at the time, she likely would have surfed the Web and checked Facebook. “I did the bare minimum,” she says. “I was there, but I wasn’t there.”
Nearly 20 years later, the 42-year-old Green looks back and wishes she had handled the transition differently. Luckily for her, it did not hurt her prospects in the long run, but she did hear through a friend about the mess she left behind for her replacement. “I did end up hurting an innocent person,” says Green, who is now the CEO of a small digital technology firm in the Washington, DC, area and manages her own team of employees.
About half of today’s workers stay in a job for fewer than five years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. How you navigate your next move can make all the difference in your career. Leave on a high note and your former boss may call you one day with a new opportunity. Leave on a sour note, on the other hand, and it could haunt you in the future.
“People think that when they’re leaving a company, this is the end of a chapter,” says Susan Inouye, an executive coach in Southern California. “They’re thinking about the future and the next job. But as you close up this chapter of your life, how do you close it so people will remember you positively?”
Many industries are small enough that your reputation could precede you. Michelle Sullivan landed her current position, as the director of marketing at Appfluent Technology, through a recommendation from an old boss. She wasn’t looking for a new position, but when the opportunity came to her attention, she realized it was a good time for a change.
The 42-year-old executive immediately but quietly began taking steps to prepare to leave—even before she had received a formal job offer.
While working on a project, for instance, she invited a junior employee to join her so that she could prepare and train a replacement in case she had to hand off the project before it was completed. She also connected the junior employee with another senior executive so that the junior employee had someone to go to—besides her—if there were questions. For the junior employee, it became a golden opportunity to sharpen her résumé and skills.
Meanwhile, each time Sullivan met with her boss, she gave detailed reports of her projects and their status. This way, when the time came for her to leave, there would not be any surprises.
“I didn’t want to be deceptive,” says Sullivan. “But I didn’t want the ball to be dropped. You don’t want to waste the years and effort you already put in because you’re in a hurry to get out the door.”
Documenting your role and responsibilities and leaving behind a transition plan are key ways you can help ease the pain of your departure. This could include creating a step-by-step guide, taking screen shots of your work, or organizing your files so that they’re easy to access.
The transition plan should answer essential questions when you’re no longer there: Which deadlines or important dates should people be aware of? Where can certain reports or papers be found? Which tools are needed to manage a particular task? If no one else at the company can take care of a job, what are some temporary solutions that can help bridge the gap? Even if you’re not ready to start job hunting, you can begin establishing a contingency plan, since it can come in handy if you go on vacation or unexpectedly fall ill.
“It’s easier to see someone leave if you know what they do,” Sullivan says. You should also keep your customers and other business partners in the loop. “Clients will remember not only how you treated them but also how you left your job,” Inouye says. “If you leave a lot of unfinished business that other people have to clean up, you can imagine how they will feel.”
Long after you have left, how you say farewell will resonate and can either help or hinder your reputation. When Tonya Rapley accepted a new position as an outreach coordinator at a housing nonprofit in New York, she sent handwritten thank-you notes to her boss and colleagues. In her message, she made clear her reasons for leaving—to pursue a new opportunity that could help build her career.
“I still felt highly of the organization, so I wanted them to know,” says Rapley, 29, who continues to volunteer for her old nonprofit. “You never know when you might need that person again or you might work with that person and that person might be able to help you,” she adds. “You just never know what the future holds.”
If you weren’t happy at your old job, however, it’s tempting to slam your company. Don’t do it, warns Inouye. “It starts to leave this distasteful feeling in people’s minds,” she says.
Instead, Inouye notes, there are ways to frame your departure so that you don’t bash your former employer. Avoid gossip and keep details to a minimum. For instance, if pressed in an interview, you could say that what you value and what the company values don’t quite match.
Now a CEO with a staff of seven people, Green recalls how one former employee bad-mouthed her company on Facebook—a surprise since Green thought that the employee had left on good terms. Although the two weren’t connected directly on the social network, they did have friends in common, so Green heard about the snarky comment a little while later.
“It’s a small world,” Green says. “You always need to be professional and ethical. Unless you never want to work with someone again, you have to be careful.”
Green recalls the one time she did say something. Her former boss, now retired, had made racist and sexist comments to her and her colleagues. Assured that her grievances would be kept confidential, she let the human resources department know about her experience during her exit interview. It turned out that she wasn’t the only employee who had complained.
Still, even if you are leaving an unhappy situation, you can go above and beyond to finish up positively. You may not be able to use your boss as a reference, but your colleagues will be able to vouch for your integrity. As Inouye says, “It’s how you go out with a bang.” DW
Leaving with Dignity
Do tell your boss first. Don’t let your boss hear about your new job through the grapevine.
Do keep your obligations. It will go a long way if you don’t leave your employer or a client in the lurch. Really want to stand out? Susan Inouye, an executive coach, recalls one employee who used his time off between jobs to help a customer finish a project. Years later, when the employee decided to start his own business, that customer immediately signed up.
Do stay in touch. Be available if your boss or replacement has questions. You never know if or when a former colleague could help you land a new position, client, or contract.
Do prepare your colleagues and boss for your departure.
Create a transition plan that documents how to take care of your tasks. If you can, train your replacement or colleagues who will take over your responsibilities.
Don’t check out early. You may be excited about your new job or just eager to leave, but you also want to close the chapter on a positive note.
Don’t bad-mouth your old employer. Resist the temptation to be negative about your former boss or employer. With the prevalence of social media, it’s too easy for something you say to get back to the source.
Ellen Lee is a freelance business and technology journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.