Deciding to leave a job can be an emotionally charged situation. You might be angry because of the way you have been treated or overjoyed because you have found your dream job.
In either case, it’s a good idea to take a sober second breath and arrange your departure the right way. Yes, the majority of employment contracts in the United States are at-will employment – that is, your company can terminate your employment whenever they want and for whatever reason, and you can also leave with the same freedom.
That doesn’t mean you should be one of the increasing number of people who “ghost” a job — a.k.a. not showing up for work one day and letting your boss and colleagues deal with the fallout — and then bad mouth your former employers. A Faas Foundation and Mental Health America's Workplace Healthy Survey showed that employees who talk negatively about their workplaces are most likely to toil in less-healthy work environments, especially when it comes to rewards and support from bosses.
Employers are reluctant to give bad reference letters because of fears of being sued for defamation, but that doesn’t mean they won’t do so if you have pushed them too far. Getting a good reference, leaving the door open to future employment, not making things difficult for your former colleagues, and just doing the right thing are among the reasons for handling your departure correctly.
Unless there is a pressing reason why, such as a family emergency or a workplace hazard that puts you in imminent danger, it’s always a good idea to give notice to your employer – usually two weeks.
Before you give notice, especially if it’s less than the standard, it’s a good idea to check with HR that you really have an at-will contract (because places like Montana don’t, for example), and that there has been nothing put into your employee contract, or union agreement, affecting the procedure for quitting. You might have obligations about your manner of departure even though you only agreed to them verbally, and not in writing.
When notifying a company you are leaving, it’s a good idea to:
- Go to your boss first. The situation will become more difficult if your boss hears about your departure first from, say, a talkative colleague. If you leave on a positive note, your former boss is more likely to give you a positive recommendation or at least verify your employment history willingly.
It shows more class and forethought if you do a formal letter of resignation, rather than just having a conversation with your boss, sending an email or text that you are leaving, or just sailing away mysteriously in the night.
The letter will be kept in your employment file and may be shared with future employers, so it should be:
- Professional. Give the information neutrally about why you are leaving. No need to grind a personal ax here.
- Positive. As you may need a letter of reference down the road, it’s best not to criticize bosses, colleagues, or subordinates.
- Brief. No more than a single typed page.
- Accurate. Professionalism dictates that you proof your letter for accuracy, including typos and grammar, perhaps letting a friend, family member, or career counselor do a read through.
- Helpful. Again, if the situation warrants it, it’s a good idea to leave with grace, perhaps offering to train your replacement or being available to answer questions once you have gone.
Before departing your job, it’s wise to go to HR or review the employee handbook to ensure that you receive everything you are entitled to. For example, are you owed benefits and compensation for unused sick or vacation days? If you have a savings or retirement fund through work, how do you transfer or cash out the funds? How do you continue health and life insurance benefits?
Because you are intentionally leaving your job, you should know if you don’t have another position waiting that you probably aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits or severance pay, unless your employment contract stipulates it.
When it is time to go, do not sprint towards the exit but calmly go through a checklist in your head to make sure everything has been handled correctly.
For example, the box of your stuff you are carrying to your car should only have your stuff and not, say, your favorite stapler from the company storeroom. The same goes for business records and client information, which could be viewed as the company’s intellectual property.
Taking things that are not yours could lead to bad reference letters and even legal charges.
Speaking of reference letters, rather than depend on your former employer to give you a good one down the road, perhaps, if they are willing, get them to write you a letter of reference now, whose wording you agree on, and keep a copy for your records. Iif you haven’t already lined up a job, then think about getting references from colleagues, too, speaking specifically about the skills you have for a desired role.
Also, if you are leaving a job and then looking for work, take time to update your resume, online portfolio, and work-related social media, including LinkedIn and Facebook.
In your own mind, be clear on your reasons for leaving, so you can deal with unexpected turns of events. For example, what do you do if your company comes back with a counteroffer, upping the salary of a new job offer? If your departure is really about money, then it’s worth considering. If you are leaving because in your heart of hearts you know you want a change, then think about how to respectfully decline the offer.
Finally, on the way out, if you are asked to do an exit interview, handle it diplomatically. Although exit interviews are supposed to be confidential, they are often shared, sometimes with the people you have complained about. If you feel strongly that the workplace was toxic or somebody’s work behavior was beyond the pale and you must call it out, do it in a way that is professional, rather than vindictive, perhaps emphasizing what you have learned from the challenges.
Whether you are looking for a new job when employed or after you’ve gone through the exit, it helps to rely on a comprehensive job source, organized for career success. Joblist.com offers access to millions of jobs, in one convenient place. Easy to browse and search, with plenty of useful career articles, we offer new listings daily from around the web, for every industry and location in the United States.