There are a variety of reasons people leave jobs – bad fit, bad manager, new opportunity, mergers, downsizing, firing, restructuring. The bigger issue is not why, but how we leave, and what legacy we leave behind.
This may be especially important in certain sectors or locations. For instance, in small communities, burning bridges can have greater repercussions. The same can be true in small or tight-knit sectors, such as Canada’s charitable sector.
This article shares practical tips and philosophies from professionals on how to leave a job and move on well.
Emotions and lessons
Whether you choose to leave a job or are asked to leave, it is a form of loss and thus involves a process of grief, says Janice Cunning, co-founder of Fundraising Leadership. “Too often we focus on moving on to the next role without acknowledging that something is ending and processing our conflicting emotions.”
For “Kendall,” who recently left a role after a restructuring, the emotional aspect of leaving is similar but not identical to leaving a job by choice. “When it’s your choice, you go through a disengagement process while you’re still at the organization, but with restructuring, it’s like a Band-Aid being ripped off and your world changes immediately.” She was initially in a state of shock and then dove into the job search process before hitting a wall a few weeks in.
Cunning encourages those leaving a role, for whatever reason, to accept the process and to also take time to learn from the experience they are leaving behind so that they can move forward well. “Take time to process your successes and failures, the good and bad parts of the role.” She adds, “This is a good time to identify your personal values, your strengths, the environment you want moving forward and even your perfect work day.”
Any job involves a wide variety of relationships, all of which will be affected by someone leaving. A jobseeker may want to work to preserve those relationships, in case they cross paths again – or they may be eager to leave them behind.
“Be careful how you message your leaving,” advises Cunning. “People will want to know why you are leaving and it’s important to maintain professionalism, be positive and not say things you will regret. Talk what you are going towards, with a sense of possibility and excitement, rather than the story of why you’re leaving.”
In the case of an unhealthy workplace, an employee may want to take a slightly different approach. Cindy Wagman of The Good Partnership says, “If you’re leaving a toxic environment and you need to get out, wrap things up quickly and cleanly. You don’t want to burn bridges but you don’t need to spend time thinking about how you could make things better.”
Nuts and bolts
There are a number of practical tasks that can mean the difference between an employee leaving well or poorly. Wagman’s fundraising consultancy is often called by organizations to backfill positions during gaps between employees. “The way a role has been left has a big effect on how quickly we can get things up and running.”
She offers the following practical tips:
- Decide with management what the priorities in your last few weeks of work will be.
- Use databases and keep them up to date. “Too often employees keep their own records in emails and files and spreadsheets where information is updated rather than using the central database. The next person coming in often has to spend months pulling information together.”
- Work on the cloud.
- Capture your processes. In addition to writing out all the information an employee thinks their successor might need, Wagman recommends creating simple, shareable videos for hard-to-describe processes. (She recommends Loom for a free screen capture and video tool.)
- Make warm introductions where possible. As an employee leaves a role, it helps the organization if they communicate their departure and what happens next to stakeholders.
Finding your way
When you’ve left a job on your own terms, it can help to consider practices that will help you move on – and how strongly you want to stay connected to your past employer. Some people like to have gratitude conversations with co-workers before they leave. Others find it cathartic to burn the files their organization doesn’t need or take a reset between positions.
Several of those I talked with arranged an overlap period where they returned to their former employer for a day a week for a period of time, allowing for training of their successor, wrapping up of projects and a more seamless transition. All those who did this, however, recommended stipulating a pre-determined length of time for doing this rather than leaving it open-ended.
Wagman, who says she tends to err on the side of making herself available to former employers, finds she doesn’t need to take a clean break. One jobseeker said they became an active member after leaving, while another felt she needed to create some space from her past organization, so she didn’t feel left out.
As you move through your career journey, building bridges will usually be more fruitful than burning them. However, each jobseeker needs to figure out what aligns with their needs, not only when looking for a new job, but when deciding how to leave one.
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