How to Leave Your Company (On a Good Note)

Closing the chapter on a job is not easy, especially if you want to do it well.

Posted Apr 09, 2015

Peter Rossetti, used with permission
Source: Peter Rossetti, used with permission

​Although I believe the first 100 days on the job are the most critical—not just the very first one—much has been written about the importance of starting that initial day on the right foot. Most of us, at some point, learned the basic protocol of “day one”: arrive early, be friendly, ask questions, refrain from controversial topics, and don’t be the first person out the door at the end of the day.

The reason the beginning of a job is so important is that we mightily value first impressions, those perceptions formed in preciously few seconds. They can make or break a deal, they can establish or strip away trust; and they can help you move forward professionally or cause stagnation—if you’re not mindful of the social signals you give off from the start.

But there’s not the same volume of advice on how to leave a job just as well as you (hopefully) started it, in order to leave a positive, lasting impression. Apart from the conventional practice of providing at least two weeks notice, it can be challenging to know what to say, when to say it, and how to honor the people with whom you’ve worked—whether or not you've liked the job you are leaving, and whether or not you've cared about colleagues with whom you've shared meetings and lunches.

Unfortunately, not even business schools offer training, formal or otherwise, on the best ways to make a professional transition. Schools have always offered a disproportionate amount of instruction and guidance to students when it comes to seeking a job (they care less about how alumni break the chains they forged upon accepting offers, though leaving badly has professional repercussions). Subsequently, most of us don’t have the specialized skill set to confidently pave a smooth path to a new professional destination.

Even when it’s your choice to veer to a new path, the final formal ending—the requisite exit interview—is so much more than a checklist of an “it went well/it did not go so well” analysis. It’s an emotionally loaded meeting in which you are expected to express succinct thoughts about the role you are leaving, although you likely feel so much more about the totality of the experience.

This is why for some “the end” can often lead to varying levels of depression—even if they are the instigators behind the change they are experiencing. Because no matter how you slice it, change is hard, even when there’s a promise of blue skies at the conclusion.

I believe we need more designs for (un)happy endings. We need more rituals for what Susan Sontag described as “perpetual acts of separation and return” to honor the moments of closure in our professional experiences, especially when you consider the average employee will change jobs 11 times during a career.

Below, I’ve listed a few suggestions for how we can begin to consecrate a professional transition. They can help you honor the institutional knowledge you’ve built up during your tenure, including the triumphs that thrilled you and the failures that stretched you. They give you the chance to directly acknowledge the complex web of relationships you created, beginning on that unforgettable day one (as awkward or exciting as it was). And they allow you to leave a lasting impression among your peers, along with plenty of contagious goodwill.

Record your triumphs

Before the highlights from your performance evaluations disappear from your memory, and the accolades from colleagues turn hazy, record all the good stuff while it is still fresh in your mind—do this every time you undergo a professional transition. Use whatever means is easiest, whether it be a voice memo, a data dump in a Word document, or a quick video. I even have the habit of maintaining a "Nice E-Mails" folder that contains the nicest emails I receive. All of this is good fodder for your CV, but it’s intended to be a different kind of professional portfolio, one that celebrates the bold moves you took, the risks that reaped rewards, and the anecdotes that capture the ephemeral moments on the job when you felt fully and truly alive. These are the stories a traditional resume isn’t structured to capture. Reminding yourself of these moments will allow you to forge new ones, even if you employ different strategies and actions to get there in the future.

Set fire to your failures

I mean this metaphorically, because I don’t know of too many (any?) companies that would champion a bonfire in the middle of a conference room or a lobby. And my advice to destroy your failings doesn’t mean you should forget them, quite the contrary. Every single failure is an important teacher and exposes a gemstone of insight if we dare to look closely. But this requires reflection, digestion, and then a letting go—a figurative conflagration in which we free ourselves to move forward, with a new lesson in tow.

But do not—do not—burn bridges

Videos of employees filming their resignations, sometimes without much regard for the people they leave behind, have become viral hits. And while it may feel good in the moment to deliver a cutting speech that you always imagined delivering to a co-worker or manager, it immediately sullies your track record of good work, not to mention your reputation. Unless you are a shock jock, or don’t wish to advance in your career, a good reputation is an asset more valuable than gold. People from your professional past always have a way of popping up in your present. Always.

Thank everyone who needs thanking

We don’t say “thank you” enough. We get easily caught up in tasks, deadlines, and responsibilities. Sometimes we barely take the time to breathe, much less take a step back to acknowledge a kind gesture, or acknowledge a peer or manager who went out on a limb. Offering up a simple thank you (especially a written one) not only brightens your recipient’s day, it also has the power to kindle future acts of kindness—for a life after you. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time, and the effect is far more enduring than you will ever know.

Write a goodbye-letter (not an email)

Give your company honest feedback, especially written one. The exit interview might not suffice for that. Rather, write letters to your colleagues, your manager, and even your leadership team, summarizing your experience during your tenure at the firm, respectfully, critically, candidly.  Offer some suggestions for improvements. Trust me, they will appreciate your parting gift—and in a modest way, it will help make the company you're leaving a better place.

Don’t be afraid to show emotion

We’ve all had hard days on the job, and we’ve all heard the saying “there’s no crying in baseball.” You could substitute any professional sport, and the message would still be loud and clear: no matter what, suck it up and be professional. Histrionics in the workplace are the adult equivalent of a temper tantrum, and no one wants the label of “difficult to work with.” But showing genuine, heartfelt emotion is a different story. Under your professional demeanor, you are a human being who can’t help but be affected by the interactions and occurrences you experience in your career. When it’s time to say farewell to your comrades, don’t feel compelled to manufacture a stoic front. Your colleagues will appreciate the vulnerability you show when you allow yourself to be emotionally expressive. In doing so you acknowledge the emotional potency of your final goodbye, and it honors the people around you because it shows they had an indelible impact on you.

Departing your job on a good note suitably prepares you to start fresh, if not over. It gives you an honorable exit, while allowing you to express your best self in the midst of a whirlwind of change. I welcome ideas on how we can collectively build a new protocol for professional closure, one in which we ban the banal euphemisms, acknowledge the mixed emotions, and allow any awkwardness or fear to breathe quickly and then dissipate. It is possible to take leave on friendly terms, and this should be the rule—not the exception.

To learn more, please see my new book THE BUSINESS ROMANTIC (HarperCollins)