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How to Leave Your Job Gracefully

Getting an offer for a job better than the one you currently have is a liberating experience, especially if you’re not happy where you are. But don’t let the rush of good news cloud your judgment; maintaining a strong network is critical for your career.

Rather than telling off your boss and gloating to your colleagues, follow these steps, courtesy of Howard Seidel, a partner at Boston-based executive search firm Essex Partners. He even provides some insight on how to cultivate references when you’re on the verge of that great new job.

To whom should you give notice and how/when should you broach the subject?

Formally, notice is usually given directly to your direct supervisor. If you have a long-term relationship with someone else in the command chain above them it is reasonable to request your manager to let you tell them directly. You want to give notice in a direct but respectful way—e.g. “I’ve had a great two years at the company but I’ve decided to accept another outstanding opportunity.” Even if things haven’t been going well, the right thing to do is not to gloat at the new opportunity, but to be respectful. Additionally, if you are going to a competitor, make sure you haven’t signed a non-compete as part of your employment agreement that would limit you from going to certain companies or even an industry.

If you want to elicit a counter-offer, how should you go about it, if at all?

If you would prefer to stay at your old company, but there is something in the new offer you can’t pass up (money, title, etc…) you can signal that in giving your reasons for leaving. That gives your company an opportunity to see if they can match it. Sometimes, people even go back to their current company before accepting the new offer to specifically give the company a chance to match. Don’t have them go through the exercise of trying to get a counter if you know you want to leave anyway; that will likely make things worse.

How should you handle an exit interview?

It’s usually best to be constructive without making the complaints personal about a particular person or persons. No matter what you are told, assume that your feedback could get back to people.

Please explain why walking out isn't a smart move?

Even under the worst of circumstances it looks really bad if you don’t leave the right way and give proper notice. I am not just talking about the people at the company you are leaving, but also to the people at your new company (or to a potential employer if you haven’t solidified another role yet). There may be reasons in your own mind why walking out is appropriate, but short of a sense of real physical or mental danger, walking out can be a tough thing to live down.

Who are the best people to get references from? What if internal recommendations aren't an option?

If you are still in a job, your potential employer won’t expect to be able to talk to people at your current company, though it can be helpful for a peer to speak “off the record.” You might also seek the reference of a former supervisor or colleague that has left the company. Hiring companies will expect, though, to talk to other past employers.

The best reference is someone who will say unambiguously good things about you, preferably in a supervisory role to you. Weak references can kill you with faint praise.

Remember, in addition to formal references, companies may “blind” reference you—that is seek information from people that aren’t on your reference list. It’s one of the reasons why it is good to try to end things on a good note, even with people who aren’t your best advocates.

Is there any way to prepare your network for a blind reference? 

Blind references are just that because they aren’t people you’ve formally put on your reference list. They are potentially everybody else.  If you are interviewing for a job while you have a job, companies typically aren’t supposed to blind reference at the firm where you are currently working. They tend to understand that could put your current job in jeopardy. However, everyone else may be seen as fair game. If you know that a person with whom you are interviewing is friends with someone you worked with in the past, it can be helpful (when possible) to make sure you connect or reconnect with that person.

The best thing you can do to help in blind referencing is to maintain positive relationships with people at past organizations, especially supervisors, even if you don’t think the relationship is strong enough to have them on your formal reference list. That is why leaving a job gracefully is so important—you never know for sure who might get called about you for a future opportunity.

What other mistakes do people commonly make when leaving a job?

  • Burning bridges through bad or indifferent behavior that will forever lose certain people as resources or potential references.
  • Providing references without knowing what they will say.
  • Telling a story about one’s departure from a company that is inconsistent from the story your references will likely tell.
  • Using a written reference from a person who won’t talk to a company directly (there are exceptions, but that tends to smell like a “negotiated” reference).

What are the best ways to avoid these mistakes?

Cultivate your references, know what they think of your strengths and weaknesses and let them know how you are framing your departure.

AUTHORBeecher Tuttle US Editor

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