How to make an elegant exit: a job leaver’s guide
An expertly executed exit is a cathartic experience, do it well and you’ll secure your legacy as a class act. Photograph: Getty Images
How to resign
There’s lots of advice available about how to get a job, how to do a decent job and how to progress in a job and yet we don’t often talk about the sticky subject of resigning. But with some high-profile resignations recently (Goodbye, Meghan and Harry) it’s a good time to examine what makes for an elegant exit.
When to quit
Do you feel stuck? Slouchy? Stagnating? A general lack of enthusiasm? A reluctance to say yes to things? These are all tell-tale signs that the time has come to find pastures new. Judging a good moment to walk away isn’t always easy. Obviously, it’s better to make considered decisions and carefully strategise your next move before you flounce out of the building.
So, never resign when you’re furious. Never resign when you’re emotional. Never resign just to get a pay rise, or a promotion. Never resign out of malice. Always allow yourself time to reflect and be certain before you pull the trigger. And if you’re sure it’s time to go and you have a plan (even a vague plan) for what happens next, then you need to sit down and write a very tricky letter.
How to quit
Letter writing is, of course, a dying art. But it still is an art and your letter of resignation should be drafted and refined to reflect that. How many letters have you written up till now? If you’ve only really ever dashed off a few begging notes to Santa then make sure you craft this one properly.
The content and tone need to reflect you and the circumstances accurately and honourably. It’s a chance to own the narrative of your departure and you can always do that without it being an exercise in vitriol. If you have a grievance you can obliquely allude to it here, but this is not the place to get all poisonous. Beware of venting your feelings, you might think you’re leaving in a blaze of glory but you’re really just burning bridges.
It’s a good idea to formally thank your employer and to wish the team luck in the future and there’s nothing wrong in memorialising your efforts too “I’m proud of achieving X in my role”. Always state your willingness to finish up and hand over in a responsible manner. No one can see your gritted teeth on paper.
Handing in your resignation is a big moment and you might need to psych yourself up for it. Even if you’re desperate to be out of there you can feel conflicted – are you letting your colleagues down or leading the company into a crisis? Reassure yourself that this isn’t the case. Few people are truly irreplaceable and change is natural and necessary. And if that doesn’t help then listen to Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 loudly on your headphones. It’s very motivating.
Depending on your relationship, it’s better if you tell your boss in person or over the phone before handing in your letter or email. It’s much more personal and gives them time to consider the implications. When you say it out loud, don’t expect a gushing eulogy in response. Your boss may have seen it coming, in which case you can expect calm acceptance. Equally, it may come as a shock and they could respond negatively.
Be prepared for the obvious questions (where are you going next?) but don’t feel you need to give detailed answers about your future plans. Don’t publish details in your social circle or on social media until your resignation is accepted and the terms are all agreed (Hello, Meghan and Harry). This process can take time and be awkward for everyone involved, but remember, even if it’s super inconvenient, you have the right to resign with the appropriate notice whenever you choose.
During your notice period, it’s essential to keep up a good work ethic and focus your time on transitioning contacts, closing things down and preparing a handover. If you want to protect your reputation, now is not the time to start swanning in at 10am and taking long, frequent vaping breaks. Most industries are claustrophobically small, so you are almost guaranteed to meet some of these people again (perhaps even in a future job interview). So, leave with the same amount of professionalism as you’d like to be remembered for. Stay sharp till the last contracted hour – it’s self-preservation.
Long notice periods are challenging – you’ve mentally moved on but you’re trapped in the drudge of your old job. Use this time to close one chapter and prepare for another. Make sure you take what’s useful (and legal) from your current position (ie gather materials to showcase a portfolio or have a final session with your mentor). Preserve time to say goodbye and thank you to your colleagues. Write personal notes to your contacts, introduce them to your successors. An expertly executed exit is a cathartic experience, do it well and you’ll secure your legacy as a class act.
Eat something large at 5pm, nurse one drink from 6pm to 8pm and then behave sensibly until taxi time. You’ll regret every other version of this evening.
How to Go to Work: The Honest Advice No One Ever Tells You at the Start of Your Career, by Lucy Clayton and Steven Haines, is published by Penguin; a podcast is at howtogotowork.com