Leave gracefully

31 August, 2021

Avoid burning bridges and bolster your professional reputation with a well-planned exit.

Recently, one of our team members resigned to pursue another opportunity. While we have been quite fortunate to see very few exits in our young organization, it was nevertheless disappointing that this person wanted to leave us. We tried to retain him. However, he wanted exposure to another industry. We reluctantly agreed. He then asked if we could relieve him in a couple of weeks and not hold him to his notice period. We felt that his request was unreasonable and in poor taste.

What many of us don’t realise that closing the chapter on a job is also a big deal. Somehow, we don’t give it the same amount of attention. This is a pity because the way you leave a company can have a huge impact – positive or negative – on your long-term career prospects. Business schools offer a great deal of advice around starting a new role, but largely ignore the repercussions of a poorly handled exit. In the words of Jodi Glickman, author of Great on the Job:

Business is about relationships. Even if you are heading to your dream job, there’s no benefit to burning bridges or creating negative feelings when you’ve got your foot out the door.

There is a high likelihood that you will work with former colleagues again at some point.

By departing the organisation gracefully, you can safeguard these valuable relationships and ensure that doors continue to stay open for you.

Your professionalism will hold you in good stead when you need references and recommendations in the future. This holds true for everyone from junior executives to C-suite leaders. Besides, isn’t it simply a good feeling to leave on a high note?

This week, my message focuses on the importance of exiting a company on good terms. What steps can you take to leave a positive and lasting impression? How can you continue to strengthen relationships even on the way out?

As far as possible, your exit should be thoughtfully timed, well planned and carefully executed. Here are 10 suggestions to help you leave your job with grace and dignity.

1. Provide more than ample notice.

Nothing will damage your hard-earned reputation faster than leaving at a moment’s notice, which can leave your team scrambling and in disarray. While you probably have a fixed notice period as per your terms of employment, it is a nice gesture to give more time if possible. This will allow the company to organise a proper transition plan, and also give you enough time to wrap up key commitments. If feasible, you could even help with vetting candidates for your position and training your replacement.

2. Make a plan to share the news.

The golden rule is to inform your manager first, then move on to telling other people. Come up with a strategy to share the news of your departure. If you’re in a managerial position, you might prefer to tell team members once your replacement has been chosen and a succession strategy determined. This way, you’ll be able to provide some clarity around what will happen next. Given the current pandemic scenario, it’s all the more important to mitigate uncertainty.

3. Tell people face to face.

Email and WhatsApp have become par for the course these days. But when it comes to delivering major news, there’s still no substitute for an in-person interaction. This especially applies to close colleagues, mentors and direct reports. If meeting face to face isn’t possible, the next-best option is virtual video conferencing. Depending on who you’re talking to, you can opt for a group meeting or a one-to-one conversation.

4. Expect mixed reactions.

It’s good to be prepared for different types of responses, especially if you’re switching industries or making an unconventional move. Some people will be happy and excited for you, while others may be surprised or concerned. Yet others could be disdainful and critical. And finally, some people will simply be indifferent! Anticipating a variety of reactions will allow you to take all of these in your stride.

5. Make time to express gratitude.

No matter how long you’ve been with an organisation – one year or one decade – there are people who would have played a vital part in your growth and success. Do carve out time to reflect on the good times you’ve shared and thank these individuals during your final weeks.

Besides being good business practice, expressing gratitude has a beneficial effect in general. It brings much-needed humanity into a transactional setting, and increases feelings of wellbeing and happiness for both parties. Besides handwritten notes, emails and farewell speeches, another nice way to show your appreciation is to write LinkedIn recommendations.

6. Avoid leaving on a negative note.

It’s possible that the reason for your departure isn’t very pleasant. Maybe you didn’t get along with your boss, or perhaps you developed an unhealthy rivalry with a peer. In such cases, there may be strong temptation to vent your frustration and give certain people a piece of your mind on the way out. Resist the urge to do so. Remember, people have long memories when it comes to being badmouthed. Instead of dwelling on bygone grievances, focus on the path ahead – in conversation, as well as in spirit. As Leberecht notes:

While it may feel good in the moment to deliver a cutting speech that you always imagined delivering to a co-worker or manager, it immediately sullies your track record of good work, not to mention your reputation.

7. Help top talent grow.

Even after you’ve officially resigned, you can still benefit your direct reports. Is there a talented team member who has been seeking greater responsibility? If yes, why not recommend that they take over part of your portfolio? Suitable individuals could also be encouraged to apply for your soon-to-be-vacant position. Do keep in mind the limits of your influence, and be careful not to make promises you can’t keep.

8. Stay checked in until your last day.

Once the cat is out of the bag, it can start to feel like you’re on holiday. A lot of people tend to slack off in their last few weeks, missing out on key tasks and deadlines. While these may no longer be important for the person who is leaving, they continue to be crucial for the team and organisation.

Checking out of your responsibilities early will not only take a toll on your reputation but also leave your colleagues in the lurch. Make it a point to tie up all loose ends with the same level of professionalism that defined the rest of your tenure.

9. Take the exit interview seriously.

In all likelihood, an exit interview will be part of your company’s departure protocols. Approach this conversation with the seriousness it deserves. Talk about the opportunities you received, outline your learnings, and share a few steps that could be taken for further improvement. When offering constructive criticism, aim to be candid without getting offensive.

10. Don’t take exclusion personally.

After your resignation has been made official, it can be disconcerting to find yourself on the side-lines. In her article in the Harvard Business Review, Carolyn O’Hara offers wise advice on dealing with this situation: 

We like to think we’re irreplaceable, but all of a sudden you may not be invited to meetings or included in important discussions. Don’t get distracted by feelings of exclusion. You’ve chosen to leave and you have to remember that business goes on.

A well-planned exit demonstrates a true regard for your co-workers and organisation. By avoiding toxic negativity, expressing genuine appreciation, and completing your responsibilities to the best of your abilities, you will ensure a warm welcome in case you ever want to return to the company or end up working again with the same people. Leaving your job gracefully not only closes one chapter well but also leaves you suitably prepared for the next.


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