How to Quit with Grace Under Fire

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The right way to quit? Spend no more than five minutes relaying your decision to your employer.

'The organization that you're leaving is going to be your reference in the future, so you definitely want to avoid ticking them off,' says Allan R. Starkie, a partner in New York-based retained search firm Riotto Jones & Company. 'The best way to do that is to not get into a discussion, argument or negotiation with them.'

Begin by giving no information about your move other than your decision to leave. Explain that you've really enjoyed your time at the firm and that you've learned a lot (you can be specific here). Some useful talking points:

  • 'I'm making an important move that's essential for my career development and the welfare of my family.'
  • 'It's been a good relationship and I'm going to ask that you respect my decision.'
  • 'I'm willing to stay for the duration of my notice period unless you'd like me to leave earlier.'

Don't think twice

Most people who accept a counteroffer wind up regretting it. And that's not just because their credibility within the company may be damaged to the point of jeopardizing future negotiations for pay or promotion.

'Without bull----, more than 96% of those decisions to stay are wrong,' says Jay Gaines, president of New York-based retained search firm Jay Gaines & Company. 'Only one or two times in my career can I say that the person did the right thing by staying. The rest of the time the individuals get more money, they get richer, but while maybe a couple of things have changed, the real essence doesn't change,' Gaines says. 'They've compromised themselves with us on the outside and often they've compromised themselves unknowingly on the inside.'

But what is perhaps less obvious is that even entertaining a counteroffer can be a serious mistake. 'When a good person goes to resign, the response is always the same,' says Gaines. 'The boss says, 'I'm shocked by this, I'm sorry to hear this, before you do anything give me a day to form a response and come back at you.' And most people are well-intended and think, well, he's my boss. I owe him this.'

Unfortunately, a rejected counteroffer can leave a sour taste in the mouth of the employer. 'It just prolongs everybody's agony and frustration,' says Gaines.

Avoid this misstep by putting a tight leash on the conversation. 'Any information that you give extends the conversation and the likelihood they'll try to negotiate with you to get you to stay,' says Starkie. If you do reveal where you're going, says Starkie, follow up with something like, 'It's a matter of integrity now. I will not go back on my word, but again I want to thank you for everything I've gotten out of my position.'

'If you're going to resign, resign for real,' says Gaines. 'If you want to negotiate or express unhappiness with your employer, have the courage to do so proactively without putting a gun to their head.'

Famous last words

Resist the urge to tell your boss what you really think of him or her. 'You never know when someone is going to call up this person and ask about you as a reference,' says Lee Miller, managing director of and a former employment lawyer. 'Life is long and you've got to be very careful, because in this industry you're going to be bumping into the same people over and over in different incarnations in your life. That moment of feeling good is just not good enough.'

'If you want revenge,' advises Starkie, 'steal their clients in an equitable kind of way.'

Most always, you'll be better off on the high road. Leave positively -and leave people feeling good about you. That includes making sure your work is in good shape and transferring it to whomever is responsible in an orderly manner-not taking it with you.

'Do not take any documentation or proprietary information which in any way compromises your ethics,' says Starkie. Besides opening yourself up to possible legal action by your old employer, 'It will taint you in the eyes of your new employer. Bringing over proprietary information makes people question how loyal you are.'

As for the modern tradition of the departing email, keep it short but not too saccharine. 'The email is not a bad touch if it's sanctioned by the institution,' says Starkie. You're better off sticking to the bare-bones format of the notice you gave your boss and resisting the urge to wax nostalgic or demonstrate your flair for drama-there are far too many examples of departure emails that are circulated in infamy, says Starkie.

Follow these guidelines and instead of whispering about your bungled exit, the only thing your colleagues will remember is the great job you did.

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