How to Thoughtfully Leave Your Job (and with Dignity!)
Updated: Mar 12
These days layoffs and job leaves are common. So are career transitions. Every few months, you’ll see an example in the news media of someone who left their job in dramatic fashion. Examples include the JetBlue flight attendant who famously deployed the emergency chute on the runway, or the Goldman Sachs executive who wrote a "Why I Am Leaving” article in the New York Times.
These stories catch our attention because they showcase an extraordinary way to exit a company — but they are also cautionary tales for jobseekers.
When possible, don’t burn bridges at your current employer. You may just run across your co-workers — or current supervisors — in the near future.
When you’re thinking of leaving your job, there are things to consider in three phases of the separation — what to do before you even begin to apply for a new job, as you look for a new job while you’re still employed, and how to leave your current job gracefully. Many jobseekers worry about how they will tell their boss that they are planning to leave or quit.
However, there are concrete steps that you can take to ensure that you thoughtfully leave your job with integrity and with dignity.
Before You Start Your Job Search
1. When you decide to start looking for another position, take the time to review your old files and make a list of your accomplishments in the position.
If you haven’t been collecting accomplishments so far, now is the time to start. This information will be useful in developing your résumé and conducting interviews. Make copies of documents that support your accomplishments (unless company policy prohibits it). You may not have access to this information once you submit your resignation — especially if you are asked to leave immediately.
2. The first thing to consider when you’re ready to resign is whether your company has a policy or guideline about how much notice you should provide.
Check your employee handbook and any employment agreement you have with the company. If you’ve worked at the company for any length of time, you may have some idea of how resignations are handled.
Does your boss ask the resigning employee to leave immediately, or do they generally ask him/her to stay until a replacement is found?
How much time is it customary to offer to stay? You should always offer to stay two weeks, but have a contingency plan in place if you’re asked to leave immediately.
3. Before notifying your supervisor of your resignation, ensure that you are prepared to leave.
You don’t want to tip anyone off that you’re leaving — things like taking your photos off your desk or boxing up personal items on your bookshelf are noticeable — but you can quietly clean out your desk and files. This includes cleaning off your work computer.
If you have personal documents on your computer, save them to a jump drive or CD, and then delete the originals from your computer. You can forward any personal email messages you want to save to your non-work email address, and then delete the originals. (Be sure to delete messages in your “sent mail” folder too.)
If you have online accounts that use your business email address for the log-in, change the accounts over to your personal email. If you downloaded software to your computer that isn’t related to your job, be sure to uninstall it.
And, finally, learn how to delete your computer’s browsing history, cookies, and saved passwords from your Internet browser. When cleaning out your desk and files, shred or trash old files that won’t be needed by your successor.
If you bring home a few personal items at a time, it won’t be as noticeable. The goal is to be able to easily bring home all of your personal belongings in one or two boxes — and, to be able to leave your job without leaving behind any personal information.
Conducting a Job Search While You’re Still Employed
Research reveals that it’s easier to find a job when you have a job. Yet, there are special considerations you need to consider when conducting a job search while you’re still employed.
1. In correspondence with prospective employers or recruiters, mention that you are conducting a “confidential” job search.
You can use a phrase such as “I am contacting you in confidence about this position.” However, keep in mind that prospective employers are under no obligation to respect your wishes. Also be careful when replying to blind advertisements, which do not provide a name for the prospective employer. More than one jobseeker has accidentally submitted a résumé to his/her current employer this way.
2. Don’t conduct your job search on the company’s time — or money.
Reserve your jobseeking activities to before work, on your lunch hour, or after work. This is only fair to your boss and to the company. Respect ethical policies.
If necessary, take personal leave (not sick time) to go on interviews. (You can simply say you have an appointment.) Don’t use your company computer (including accessing your personal email account) for your job search.
Avoid taking employment-related phone calls during your work time; allow these messages to go to your voice mail, and return the calls during breaks or before or after work. Don’t list your employer’s phone number or your business email address on your job search documents.
3. How you dress during your job search can also be challenging.
If you work in a “casual” workplace, wearing “interview attire” to work can be a red flag that something is up. You may want to change into your more formal clothes before an interview (don’t change at work!) — or schedule job interviews on a day when you’re not working.
4. Providing job references needs consideration.
Even if you’ve told the prospective employer that your current employer doesn’t know that you’re looking, you may still want to mention that you do not want the company to contact your current employer for a reference until they are ready to extend a job offer to not jeopardize your current position. Therefore, you may need to provide several references outside of your company who can speak to your credentials and expertise.
5. Put your LinkedIn profile up sooner rather than later.
Developing a comprehensive LinkedIn profile — and building up your network of contacts — is something to do immediately. If you create a LinkedIn profile before you start your job search, you can create a network of contacts to assist you in being more effective in your current position.
However, having a newly-minted LinkedIn profile (especially one that mentions you’re open to “new opportunities”) can tip off your supervisor (or co-workers) that you’re looking for a new position. Routinely updating an existing profile on a regular basis, may not be as suspicious.
How — and When — to Tell Your Supervisor That You’re Leaving
There’s rarely an “easy” way to let your current boss know that you’re leaving the company. This is especially true if you have been with the company a significant amount of time, or if you have a strong relationship with your supervisor.
If you’ve had discussions with your supervisor in previous performance evaluations about your desire to move up, but these opportunities don’t exist within the company, your departure may not be a surprise. If your company was recently sold or acquired — or if your department has had a lot of recent turnover — that fact that you are leaving may not be unexpected. But if you are a key player, your resignation may be surprising, and may even cause big problems for the company.
The simplest guideline: let your current supervisor know as soon as you can. For most jobseekers, that means as soon as you’ve secured your new position (including getting the particulars of the new position in writing, if possible).
Writing Your Resignation Letter
Is a letter of resignation necessary? It depends. Many jobseekers simply tell their boss verbally that they are leaving — but there are several advantages to actually writing a resignation letter.
It can help start the conversation about you leaving the company. You can simply give it to your boss and say, “I’ve prepared this letter of resignation to let you know I’ve accepted another job.”
A resignation letter can provide you with an outline to discuss the issues related to your departure from the company (timing, unused vacation or sick leave, etc.)
It can help you leave the job on the right foot — without burning bridges, and leaving the door open for future opportunities, should they arise.
Structure of a Letter of Resignation
Letters of resignation should be positive in tone -- avoid airing out your grievances. Your resignation letter will likely become a part of your permanent file, so choose your words carefully. If at all possible, hand-deliver (don’t email) your letter of resignation.
In the future, the person verifying your employment with the company might not be someone you worked with previously. They may review your file, and what you write in your letter of resignation might be important. A strong recommendation can be important — and it’s appropriate to reiterate your contributions in the resignation letter so that information is in your file. Just don’t go overboard; this is about you leaving the company, not angling for a raise or a promotion.
In your letter, thank your employer for the opportunities you had. You can also reiterate valued personal relationships in your resignation letter — acknowledging your work with your coworkers and supervisors.
What to include in your letter of resignation:
The date you are leaving (if at all possible, give at least two week’s notice).
Include a forwarding address for mail and correspondence. Also include an email address where you can be reached.
Making a Successful Job Transition
Don’t neglect the details when making a job transition. Even when you initiate your departure, there will be paperwork to complete. This can include:
An exit interview. Many companies conduct a brief interview with departing employees to see if they can identify trends or areas of improvement to help them retain more employees.
Health insurance benefits. You may need to take advantage of COBRA coverage to extend your health insurance benefits until you start your new position. Make sure you have this information from your company’s HR representative.
401(k) or pension rollover, or stock sellback. If you have participated in the company’s retirement program or stock purchase program, you may need to take action to secure these investments once you leave the company.
What if you did not initiate the departure? If you have been terminated or are in the process of being terminated, know your rights and understand the legalities in Canada. Remember you have a right to be treated fairly and with dignity.
The Etiquette of Departure
1. Don’t tell your boss — or your coworkers — that you are even thinking of looking for a new position.
If being unemployed for any length of time is not a viable option, don’t give your employer a reason to let you go before you’ve had a chance to find a new position.
Sometimes, even the idea that you’re seeking a new position is enough for you to jeopardize your current job. For example, your boss might not assign you to a new project because “you’re not going to be here long enough to see it through anyway.”
2. Don’t tell your coworkers you’re leaving before you inform your boss.
Even if you have a friend or confidant in the office, don’t let him/her know you are interviewing for another position, or that you’ve landed a new role. You need to tell your boss first.
3. Don’t share — or dwell on — your reasons for seeking a new position.
4. Don’t try to justify why you are leaving.
If you are leaving to escape a toxic work environment, there’s nothing to be gained by pointing that out. It’s fine to say that you are leaving to explore new opportunities.
5. Make a good impression all the way to the end.
Remember, “Often, the last thing people remember about you is your last days on the job, not your first.” What should you be doing in your last few days and weeks on the job? Whatever your boss wants you to.
Have a conversation with your supervisor. What does he/she want you to work on? Will you be training your replacement? Are there any major projects to complete? Can you document processes and procedures in enough detail that someone else could complete the tasks?
6. Ask your supervisor for a reference — either a letter or a LinkedIn Recommendation.
You can also ask what information will be provided in the future when someone contacts the company for information to verify your employment, or for a reference. Some companies have a policy that they only provide dates of employment, and that all reference checks must go through the Human Resources Department — so your supervisor may not be able to provide a reference.
7. Don’t neglect your colleagues.
Although the formal resignation letter is for your immediate supervisor, consider writing separate notes to co-workers to let them know you appreciated working with them. Take steps to keep your connections with your current (soon-to-be former) colleagues.
Collect personal contact information for valued contacts and assure them their professional calls and inquiries will be welcome in the future.
Connect with them on LinkedIn — you can further strengthen your connection with them by providing a Recommendation for them on their LinkedIn profile.
What If They Want You to Stay?
1. Be prepared for a counteroffer from your current employer.
When your employer finds out you are leaving, you may be tempted with an offer to stay. However, most research — and anecdotal evidence — on this subject finds that employees who accept a counteroffer often end up leaving the company anyway, often within a year.
2. In many cases, your current employer may make a counteroffer out of urgency.
If you are instrumental to a current project, for example, your supervisor may be desperate to keep you until the project is complete. Once that happens, however, you may find yourself expendable. Also, employees who accept another job offer — even if they ultimately end up staying in their current position — may be perceived as “disloyal.”
3. You were seeking a new position for a reason.
If your motivation was purely financial, you may receive
a counteroffer that meets that need, but it may create dissatisfaction with your co-workers if they learn you stayed with the company and received a raise. If you were seeking a new job for other reasons, staying at the company may not resolve those issues.
4. If you accept a counteroffer and decide to stay with your current company, have an open, honest dialogue with your supervisor about any changes that need to be made.
This is the time to be assertive, honest, and true to your goals, values, and needs.
5. Again, look to your reasons for seeking a new position in the first place.
Can these issues be addressed? For example, taking on different assignments, or making changes to the structure of the position (i.e. different hours) are critical issues. Simply staying in exchange for more money may not make you more successful in the same position — which may lead to your eventual departure from the company anyway.
The Door May Be Open in the Future
If you handle your departure from the company with grace and tact, you may find the door is open for you to return to the company in the future. New positions may not always work out, and mergers and acquisitions (especially in smaller industries) are a possibility. If you left the company on good terms and achieved some key milestones, you may find yourself working for the same supervisor — or company — in the future!
Thinking about planning your next career move this spring?
After all, your career satisfaction matters!