7 secrets (that shouldn’t be secrets) to a graceful exit

With 3 million professionals leaving their jobs recently, what is the recipe for leaving a good lasting impression? Read on for a quitter’s checklist.

Neil Young wasn’t wrong when he sang, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” but that’s because he was talking about rock ’n’ roll and not quitting your job.

“It’s better to go out on good terms with a positive reference than an escort from security” is not a great rock ’n’ roll lyric, but it is prudent career advice. It’s also easy if you actually like the job you’re leaving and the people you work with. When you can’t wait to put your job in the rearview mirror, however? Burning bridges seems awfully tempting, even if we all know it’s an exercise in poor judgment.

Most jobs don’t last an entire career, and the decision to quit your job can come about for any number of reasons: a better job opportunity, a move to another city or your spouse’s transfer, an unreasonable boss, a need for growth, or a better salary than what you can get at your current company. With 3 million U.S. workers voluntarily quitting their jobs recently, many professionals are bidding their farewells and preparing for their next adventure. After providing adequate notice when resigning — informing your manager first, of course — the way a professional handles his or her last two weeks can impact their future career prospects.

How honest should you be during an exit interview?

Be honest but constructive — the information you give could help improve the workplace. Offer feedback and suggestions that can lead to change rather than emotionally charged grievances.

Even if your work experience was not always smooth sailing, keep your interaction in the meeting upbeat and positive. Remember, this is the last impression you will make with your current employer.

When discussing your work experience with other individuals, be truthful in the discussion. What you say in this meeting could have an impact on other people’s careers.

“Spectacular displays of resignations are familiar throughout pop culture,” notes Sasha Truckenbrod, branch manager for Robert Half and Accountemps in Madison. She says respondents to a Robert Half survey cited some over-the-top resignations they’ve heard of, such as baking an “I quit” cake, throwing a brick through the window, or creating a send-off music video.

“While these tactics seem cathartic, especially if the reason for them is that you dislike your job or boss, consider the long-term consequences and resist the temptation,” advises Truckenbrod. “The general rule of thumb when quitting a job: no malice, no pranks, and no stunts. As tempting as it is to make a dramatic departure, it’s best to exit your job with grace.”

Here are seven tips for making a positive and lasting impression during your final days on the job:

Wrap up projects — Resist the urge to mentally check out during the two-week “lame duck” period leading up to the last day at work. Rather than slack off during your wrap-up period, use this time to cement your reputation as a responsible professional. Tie up loose ends on outstanding assignments. Make sure your colleagues have all the tools, access, and instructions necessary to complete any work you won’t be able to wrap up. In short, be a diligent, dedicated, and highly productive contributor to the end. Leaving behind any messes can tarnish the good professional reputation you worked so hard to establish.

Say goodbye to colleagues — Email a final goodbye message to colleagues. Keep it positive and include your personal email address if you want colleagues to keep in touch. Record an outgoing voicemail message letting callers know you’ve left the company, and give them an alternative contact at your organization. Draft a similar auto-response for incoming email messages.

Pack your personal belongings and clean up your workstation — Take home all your personal belongings except what you need through your last day. On your computer, collect your contacts and move any personal documents into a cloud drive or send them to your personal email. Clear your browser history. Make sure your physical desk is spotless and leave all the office supplies and company property behind.

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Meet with human resources to learn about any continuing benefits — This seems obvious but in the transition from one job to another it can be easy to forget about the benefits you already have when you’re focused on the new ones you’ll be getting. Don’t forget to ask about transitioning any company-sponsored retirement plans like 401(k)s to your new employer or rolling them over into an IRA, or whether or not you have portability with your company-sponsored life insurance plans, for instance.

Have an exit interview — Participate in an exit interview with human resources if you’re given the opportunity. If such a meeting isn’t scheduled, ask for a one-on-one with your supervisor. Give more positive than negative feedback. Use tact and diplomacy, knowing that your constructive criticism could help to improve the workplace.

Return any company property such as a computer or phone — Schedule time for the final hour to hand off security badges, computers, and other equipment. 

Go out to lunch or happy hour with colleagues and friends from work — Let coworkers organize a going-away party or an after-hours get-together. If none is forthcoming, invite close colleagues for a goodbye lunch. Leave on a high note.

Okay, you’re thinking. But that’s all for when you've enjoyed your job and your coworkers. What about if you spent the better part of most workdays wishing a giant hole would open in the earth and swallow the office whole?

There actually are times when it’s not only reasonable but possibly advisable to burn your bridges with an employer, Peter Harris, a career and marketing expert, wrote in a 2016 article for the Huffington Post-Canada. “You’re likely to going to have to work for a jerk or two on [your] career journey, and you know what? It’s okay to call them on it. And sometimes it’s even preferable. You can burn your bridges without surrendering the high ground. This isn’t advice to be rude or unprofessional at work. The best thing you can do for your career is to work hard and be as nice as possible to everyone. But it is okay to leave bad jobs and toxic managers. And it is actually important to let employers know this is why you are leaving. Bad managers cost companies money, resources, time, and talent. There is no need to be afraid of them or their impact on our future success. They need to be called out.

“Oh, but not in a job interview,” Harris adds. “Remember to always speak positively about all of your past work experience in interviews. It’s a little disingenuous, but it’s how the game is played. Expressing negativity in an interview will only reflect poorly on you and hurt your chances of being hired.”

“It’s as important to leave a good last impression as it is to make a good first impression,” concludes Truckenbrod. “You should be remembered for your positive contributions, not as the one who made a scene on their last day. You never know when you may come across current colleagues and managers again — you may even work together in the future.”

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