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Exit Stage Right: Leaving Your Job Gracefully

When it’s time to move on to a new opportunity, how you leave your old job can have important implications for your future. Here’s what to do—and what not to do—when you’re making your exit.

By Erin M. Fuller, FASAE, CAE

We have all been there: For whatever reason, you decided to conduct a job search. Maybe you wanted to see what was out there, maybe you were approached by a former colleague or client, maybe your claw marks on your cubicle walls demonstrated how badly you needed to move on. In any case, you have been offered a position that’s interesting, rewarding, and clearly the next rung on your career ladder: Congratulations!

But before you pop the champagne and collapse your cubicle walls Office Space-style, I would like to give you some friendly advice. You see, leaving a job should not be like the dramatic breakup of a romantic relationship, but rather like you are moving to a new home in the same community. Here is why.

The organization you are leaving helped you build your career, in whole or part. Was this your first job, or close to it? Was this the job that gave you two promotions and positioned you to compete successfully for the job you are about to take? If so, honor your current employer’s investment in your training, coaching, and professional development by treating your colleagues there with respect.

This awesome new thing may not work out—in which case you will need referrals. Referrals don’t go away as your career progresses; they just get more complicated. Sometimes you will need to find someone who worked with you—a volunteer leader or chair, or a peer in some searches—for referrals, and if you can’t use your next job while in it, you will need to rely on contacts from the job you are about to leave. Trust me: The association world is small, and people are well connected. The most important reference question we always ask is “Would you hire this person again?” We will not hire a candidate if we get a “no” to that question.

Leaving a job should not be like the dramatic breakup of a romantic relationship, but rather like you are moving to a new home in the same community.

There is a possibility that you could earn a little more money from the organization. I have left two positions (giving ample and appropriate notice) and offered to assist with ongoing projects or training for a modest consulting fee. If you can give only a certain amount of notice but can spare 10 hours per week for the following month to complete some work, you earn a little more money, your employer gets closure, and everyone leaves feeling good about the separation.

You can’t light your way with the bridges you burn. It can be tempting to send out the flaming email, to stop doing any meaningful work as soon as you give notice, and to regale your current coworkers with tales of the Shangri-La that awaits you in your next office. But don’t succumb. If you do, when your boss’s job opens up two years from now—a job you are well qualified for—you will never get it as a result of this behavior.

The Right Way to Exit

Once you have made the decision to leave, there’s a right way to share that news and make your departure. Follow these basic rules and you’ll ensure that you keep important relationships intact.

Respect the hierarchy. In our association management company, someone may work with multiple senior-level colleagues, as well as various boards of directors. In a situation like this, it is important to allow your supervisor some time to determine how to communicate your departure to others, as the news has impact both internally and externally—it is potentially of interest to volunteer leadership, members at large, industry press, and so on. Therefore, this news is not yours to share. And if you share it too soon, you may be asked to leave before your notice period ends. (This applies to social media too. Save the Facebook and LinkedIn updates for your start date at your new gig.)

Save the angst for outside-work friends. Leaving a job and people you love is hard, and it is one of the times in your life where you really can assess quality of life in comparison to compensation. Don’t enlist your current colleagues in your process, deliberations, or agonies. It will start your lame-duck status that much earlier, make them question their own career choices, or just put them in an uncomfortable spot.

Give two-weeks’ notice as a minimum, for entry-level positions. A lot of people have heard cultural references to a two-week notice period and assumed it is the only option out there. This makes me crazy. Are you managing an event in two weeks? Is there a board meeting next week? Do you have a significant piece of content due in the next month? If so, two weeks isn’t always an appropriate amount of notice. Staying a little longer to fulfill your responsibilities shouldn’t harm your relationship with your next employer—I have never once taken back a job offer because someone needed additional time to close out their old job.

Be a grownup. Grownups do not resign via email, sent at 5:01 p.m. after they see their boss leave the office. Rather, adults schedule an in-person meeting to give notice, and they follow it up with a brief, complimentary note of resignation that will live in their human resources file. Why do this in person? Because you owe it to the organization. Because they may make an attractive counteroffer, at which point you will feel foolish to have a written resignation on the record. Because they may tell you that a job you covet will open up in the next 30 days. Because no matter what your feelings about your current employer, you want to know that you handled your resignation in the most professional manner possible. Like a breakup via text or Post-it, quitting your job the wrong way will haunt you down the line. Do it the right way, at the right time.

Endings and transitions can be challenging, exciting, and a bit scary. These are times when you want to have as many friends and colleagues as possible on your side. Manage your exit well, and you will have a cheering section rooting for your success—and hoping to work with you again as soon as possible.

Erin M. Fuller, FASAE, CAE, is president of Coulter/MCI/USA, an association management company with more than 100 nonprofit professionals in the U.S. and 1,800 globally via MCI Group. Email: [email protected]


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