Once upon a time, the corporate world was filled with “company lifers,” employees who spent their entire career working for the same employer. Now periodic job changes are becoming typical, and a career that includes multiple employers has become the rule, not the exception. As a result, in all likelihood you will find yourself resigning from a job more than once during your career. Aside from the obvious advice to avoid the (often very strong) urge to go into a full-blown job rant upon resigning, here are some other things you can do to make your exit from a company as graceful as possible:
Inform your direct supervisor first—and in person whenever possible. Until you do so, it’s best to avoid telling anyone else at the company, including friends who you trust, as news about resignations tends to spread quickly. Your boss may be upset if she isn't the first person at the company to know you are resigning, and it's generally not worth taking that risk because you never know when she may be in a position to help you down the road.
Be prepared to explain why you're leaving. Honesty is always the best policy, and in an ideal situation, the truthful reasons can be explained tactfully, non-emotionally and without burning bridges. However, if that's not possible, or if you are unsure how your truthful response will resonate, focus your answer on talking about what is appealing about the new opportunity for you personally at this particular time in your career without painting your current employer in a negative light. If there aren't any honest responses other than to give an answer the criticizes your current working environment, focus instead on seemingly innocuous yet truthful reasons why the new job is appealing to you, such as the opportunity to have a shorter commute, on-site daycare for your children, etc. If you choose to talk about the higher salary offered by your new employer, be prepared for the possibility of receiving a counteroffer to entice you to stay (more on that below). When in doubt about how information provided in response to the question will be perceived, leave it out.
Provide ample notice."Two weeks" notice is still standard, but for more senior-level positions, three to four weeks might be appreciated. Once you put in your notice, don't mentally check out. Instead, use your remaining time to do the work necessary to allow for a smooth transition for your replacement. Your graciousness in doing so likely will not be forgotten—and neither would your leaving behind unfinished business and causing an unnecessary burden on your co-workers.
Be prepared to respond to a counteroffer. If your employer offers to match, or even exceed your new salary, how would you respond? In most cases accepting a counteroffer doesn't work out in the long run because the concerns that drove you to want to leave won't change, and now your employer knows you were willing to resign, which can lead to unresolvable tension. Also, keep in mind that your employer wasn't willing to pay you what you are worth until after you resigned. And since good job openings don't come along every day, once you've walked away from a great new opportunity, it’s hard to know how long it will take for you to find something comparable.
Keep your cool. Your supervisor may take the news personally, especially if he or she has a reputation for not being able to keep employees. As a result, be prepared for an emotional response, but try not to let your emotions get the best of you. Take a few deep breaths to calm yourself down if you feel your emotions starting to surface.
Be prepared for the possibility of being asked to leave immediately. Some companies don't respond well to resignations, so even if you offer to provide two or more weeks' notice that offer may not be accepted. To avoid the possibility of having to quickly box up your belongings as you are being escorted out the door, start subtly packing up and removing some of your personal items before you give notice. Also, make sure you have hard copies of any personnel documentation that you legally are entitled to keep and may have a reason to want to maintain (i.e., non-compete agreements, past performance reviews and other documents you signed and that you are entitled to maintain by law and/or company policy) in case the company immediately removes your access to its computer systems.
It's certainly understandable that upon giving notice you'll be tempted to let your boss know how you felt about him stealing your ideas or blaming you for his mistakes or making you work weekends, but it’s best to bite your tongue in the interest of maintaining your professional reputation. Even if your job is dreadful and you can't imagine ever returning or even wanting to speak to any of your co-workers again, you still don't want to burn bridges. Given the increasing frequency of employee job changes, your coworkers are likely to change jobs as well—and you never know if they someday may be in a position to recommend you to be hired by a new company they join. Also, with the advent of social media sites such as LinkedIn you never know when a former co-worker may be asked by a mutual connection to provide a reference about you. Of course there is also always the possibility that decades down the road you may want to return to your current employer if there is a management or ownership change that addresses many of the problems that drove you to want to leave. As a result, it’s best to make sure that your reputation—and your HR file—showcases your professionalism above all else.
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Kimberly Lerman is a Director in our In-House Practice Group's Atlanta office. She specializes in placing attorneys in corporate legal departments in a wide range of industries, including financial services, retail, technology, manufacturing, healthcare and consumer services.