Working Transitions

How to leave well

There comes a time in most people’s career when they decide that the time is right to leave their job. There may be many reasons behind this decision and, ultimately, only time will tell whether it was the right decision. Usually, people move forward and enjoy their new role but, for some, with the benefit of hindsight, it turns out to be a decision they later regret. On the other hand, a departure that has been prompted by a long period of disengagement or unhappiness, or has been well thought through as part of a career strategy, may see employees feeling happy and confident as they leave – it’s a very individual issue.

Irrespective of your reasons for leaving an organisation, the hard fact is that your time there will likely remain on your CV so future employers may require a reference from them. It’s a small world - perhaps a future hiring manager will have a personal connection with someone at one of your former employers, your previous employer may become a client, or your paths may cross in another unexpected way. You never know when you may need the goodwill of a former employer so, no matter what the circumstances, it’s always in your interest not to burn any bridges and do your very best to leave well.

Here are our tips for leaving well.

Act with integrity

Leaving a job is rarely a quick thing - usually it’s a lengthy process involving attending multiple interviews and some of these may be during the working day. Take holiday leave to do this rather than be tempted to fake a sickie. When you eventually resign, your employer will almost certainly realise that your recent “upset stomach” or “migraine attack” was actually time off for an interview, for which they paid you. This can wipe out long-established trust and may negatively influence how they write your reference. A good employer won’t suddenly imply that you are untrustworthy because of this one incident, but it may mean that they score you slightly lower in the trustworthy category on a reference form, where previously you would have obtained the highest score.

Taking a holiday at very short notice and lying about the reason is to be avoided too if possible. Of course, unless you have an extremely open and trusting relationship with your boss, it’s unlikely that you will tell them why you aren’t giving them much notice of holiday, so it can be tricky. A good strategy is to ask the hiring company for their recruitment timetable and book your time off in advance. Think positive. If you get an interview then you won’t have aroused suspicion by booking the day off at the last minute and if you don’t, then most employers are likely to be more sympathetic to a request to rescind a previously booked holiday day, than they are to take one at very short notice.

Also, when you resign, if asked, tell your employer where you are going, they will find out anyway and so being cagey about it just creates an unnecessary sour note and invites suspicion. Of course, you may have contractual restrictions that make you wary but -unless you are planning on breaching these, which clearly means you won’t leave well - it serves no purpose not to just tell the truth. This at least gives the employer an opportunity to better understand your decision, a chance to explore options for you to stay and some choice regarding how they handle your notice period and exit.

Tell the boss before you tell anyone else

It’s tempting to confide in colleagues when you are actively looking for another job and of course some will keep it confidential. Others though will tell someone else “in confidence” and before you know it many people are aware and perhaps the rumour will even reach the bosses ears. In addition, even those who you can trust to keep your secret may feel uncomfortable and conflicted by this knowledge. What if you are working together on a long-term project or they are aware that you are involved in some business-critical tasks that you may not be around to complete? They will be concerned about workload and it may impact on their own performance as they start to anticipate your departure and perhaps work less closely with you.

Invariably too, if you’ve told colleagues first, even if they didn’t tell the boss, once the news is out, it usually becomes apparent that you told them first and this can have a negative impact on the boss’s perception of your integrity which may rebound on you later.

Don’t knee jerk

Starting a job campaign because of a disagreement with a colleague, some poor feedback, or because a recruiter called with an interesting sounding opportunity even though you weren’t even thinking of leaving before, is rarely the route to making a considered career-enhancing decision. Before you start looking it’s vital to be clear about what’s missing in your current role that cannot be addressed by staying. Equally, you should be sure about what it is really essential for you to gain by getting a new job. If you don’t spend some time thinking carefully about what you want to gain – by staying or leaving – then you may just waste your own and the hirers time. Many people only start to think about these things when they actually receive a job offer which is way too late and can cause hasty decisions which are later regretted. If you want to leave well, make sure you have really thought through why you are leaving at all.

Think about how you deliver the message

As the song says “breaking up is hard to do” and, if you are a valued employee with a good track record, then when you resign it’s likely that your employer will try to convince you to stay. For some people, resigning is actually a plea for attention, they really don’t want to leave but they do want their employer to demonstrate that they value them.  If that’s your goal and you achieve it then fine, however, be aware that you can usually only do this once. If you’ve thought things through carefully and you are not for turning, then consider how you deliver the message to your disappointed boss.

Try and focus on what you believe that you are gaining by leaving, rather than be negative about the organisation. If you can, then make this potential gain something that the organisation very clearly cannot offer, whether it be location, hours, training, pay or something entirely new, perhaps in a completely different role type or sector. If it’s related to your personal life, that is also easier for an employer to accept ie partner relocating, more time with family, caring responsibilities, work life balance, retraining etc.

Last impressions last for ever

No matter how happy or unhappy you are to be leaving, your final days in the business will leave a lasting impression - so do it well. If you are treated badly, or you are feeling demotivated and disengaged, try very hard to overcome this. This period of your career will always be on your CV and you never know which former colleagues you will encounter again in the future, so, stay productive and focused and resist the temptation to criticise or be negative. Be as cooperative and supportive as possible during this period and consider it as an investment in your future.

If it’s appropriate – perhaps because you are in the middle of a significant piece of work, or your team is currently stretched - offer to work a longer notice period. Try to complete a thorough handover, create a detailed document for your boss and colleagues of all your work in progress and make sure you complete all your outstanding tasks before you go. It’s so easy to blame the person who just left for anything that goes wrong afterwards and tarnish a hard-won reputation, so keep working hard right up to your last day to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

Aim to leave in a way that means the door will always be open to your return. You may not imagine that’s likely, but if you behave as though it is, then all your options remain open. Leave well and you can go forward to the next stage in your career confident that no bridges have been burned.


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Working Transitions
25 July 2019
Supporting effective and successful organisational change


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