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7 Rules for Quitting Your Job Gracefully

Here are the best ways to leave on good terms — and avoid career suicide

By Paul Bernard | June 2, 2012
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Paul Bernard is the founder and principal of Paul Bernard & Associates, an executive coaching and career management consulting firm based in New York City.

The job market has been gradually improving lately, and employers are hiring about 4 million people a month — mostly to replace employees who’ve left, according to Business Insider. So maybe you’re feeling confident enough to quit your job or are about to take a new one.
 
If so, you probably don’t want to do it the way whistleblower Greg Smith recently did, resigning publicly from his post as a Goldman Sachs executive in a New York Times op-ed article that excoriated the firm for its unethical culture. (Smith will probably be fine, because he was reportedly making $500,000 a year or more and just signed a lucrative book deal. But most people can’t afford to make such a noisy exit.)
 
You may have signed a non-compete agreement when you took the job. If so, review it carefully before resigning. You may want to meet with an employment attorney for advice on which type of new job would be off limits. You can find attorneys who specialize in employment law by asking your local bar association or searching on martindale.com, a directory of lawyers. Even if you’ll avoid legal trouble stretching the rules, you could turn yourself into an industry pariah by jumping to a competitor of your former firm. 

As a professional career coach, I think you should follow these seven rules when handing in your resignation. They’ll help you depart gracefully and avoid the kind of career suicide that can result from a dramatic exit.

1. Speak to Your Boss First
 
Have a face-to-face meeting with your supervisor to inform him or her of your decision to leave; never do it by email or telephone. Don’t say a word beforehand to your co-workers: It’s very upsetting for a boss to find out through a third party that an employee is leaving or learn after the fact that others knew before he or she did. Then follow up your conversation with a formal letter of resignation for Human Resources.
 
2. Be Prepared for a Counteroffer
 
You may receive a counteroffer if you announce that you’re leaving for another job, and it helps to consider this possibility in advance. Ask yourself: Would a salary increase, a promotion or both really make me stay? 
 
Don't assume there's an easy answer to that question. One 58-year-old client of mine, a senior marketing officer at a media firm, grudgingly accepted a counteroffer that gave her the promotion and substantial salary increase she had deserved for years. She quit six months later, after realizing that she was still bitter about five years of non-recognition.
 
Keep in mind that if you do accept a counteroffer, you can’t play an endless bidding war with your new prospective employer the way many people did during boom times. You can bring the counteroffer to the other firm and ask to match it.
 
3. Give Sufficient Notice
 
Never walk out the day after you quit. If there’s an official policy about notice time for resignations, honor it. Otherwise two weeks’ notice is usually standard.
 
If you’re asked to stay longer, consider offering one extra week, but no more. An extra week is generous — if you've made the decision to quit, it's best not to drag it out.
 
4. Abide by Professional Codes of Conduct

Return any company files and property you have. If you’re asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement, pledging not to reveal confidential information about your employer or its clients, adhere to it. In today’s ultracompetitive economy, companies are strictly enforcing these agreements.
 
5. Continue to Meet Your Performance Expectations
 
Sometimes people accept an offer, give notice, and then think it’s time for an office “stay-cation.” But slacking off in your final weeks on the job can destroy the goodwill you’ve built and kill any chance of getting a recommendation one day from your soon-to-be-former boss.
 
You may actually need to work even harder after a resignation, as you balance your normal duties with passing the baton to your replacement. Do all you can to adequately prepare your successor, so you’ll leave in the company's good graces.
 
6. Never Trash-Talk Your Employer or Your Boss
 
What you discuss with your spouse, partner or family members is one thing, but you should never trash-talk your employer or boss to someone in your field — or in any public forum — after you resign. That means no nasty comments in person, over the phone or online. Don’t even dis your employer anonymously; it’s surprisingly easy to trace supposedly anonymous online comments back to the originator.
 
7. Be Wary of Exit Interviews
 
Although exit interviews are supposed to be anonymous and confidential, they almost never are. It doesn’t take much sleuthing for senior executives to put together the dots when a departing employee makes comments about someone’s management style.
 
Moreover, exit interviews are usually conducted by junior people in HR departments who may be less knowledgable about the rules and etiquette of discretion.
 
So if you have an exit interview, don’t badmouth your managers. Instead, make bland comments, like “I’m leaving for a better opportunity.” Being explicit about your boss’ explosive management style could hurt you in the long run. And you may want to keep working for another decade or two or three.