I QUIT! How to leave a job gracefully

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After considering a career move for some time and exploring new opportunities, at last, you're invited to an interview. You’ve faced your fears and carefully prepared, and after an excruciating wait, discover you’ve nailed your dream job. You feel on top of the world!  
Temporarily. There’s just one small thing left to tackle… leaving your current one. 

For this month’s guest post, Nicola is exploring why resigning can feel painful, how to do it gracefully and avoid making a spectacle of yourself at your leaving do.

There’s a quote I like by an unnamed author; “You can't start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading the last one” which aligns nicely with this month’s topic. It’s a natural stage in our professional growth to want to move on; to experience a different culture, sector, city (or country) or to build a portfolio career. It’s also not uncommon to feel deep sadness and a fear of the unknown when resigning.

Why is it so hard to leave?

After conducting a quick straw poll, I discovered that people feel a range of emotions when resigning, regardless of whether they’d been in post for 12 weeks or 12 years. “Absolutely sick to my stomach”, “terrified”, “disloyal” and “guilty” were just some of the responses I had.

Many people feel a deep sense of commitment to their job and employer, even if they’re stagnant or deeply unhappy there. If you’ve been personally invested in - via training, a paid qualification, a coach or mentor, supported through a difficult life issue or have formed close relationships with your colleagues, it can be difficult to choose between devotion for your company and the best career move for you. 

When work-family boundaries become blurred, you can show disproportionate levels of commitment and fidelity - and neglect your own interests. Even the best organisations can’t choose employee loyalty over what’s best for business. As Allison Green, founder of career advice blog Ask a Manager says, “There’s nothing wrong with loving your work, enjoying your company and having good will toward your co-workers… But it’s still O.K., and even good, to put yourself first in the long-run.”  

Every role has an expiry date and so when it’s time to move on, move on.

I’ve made up my mind... where do I start?

Always finalise the details with your new employer before taking action with your current one. Get the offer in writing and carefully review the contract, be clear on the package offered and if you want to negotiate terms, do so before accepting. Once that’s clear, it’s time to, gulp, resign.  

Consider giving your manager a heads up in advance - and prior to your formal resignation. A good manager will know your long term plans and have actively supported them - but it might still come as a shock if you hit them with a letter out of the blue. As Alex Dawson, Director of Technique Training and Development notes, "If you’ve got the kind of line manager who is invested in your career, knows where you want to get to, gives you the support and challenge you need to get there AND makes sure the organisation gets what it needs from you, then leaving feels likes a very natural step".

When you’re ready, ask your manager for a private meeting and always ensure they’re the first to know. Hold this face to face if you work in the same location, or consider an initial call / Skype if you don’t. Only send an email if there are unusual or unavoidable circumstances. 

Keep your resignation letter brief but professional with a warm tone, but don’t over do it. A separate card for your manager is a good way to express your gratitude and appreciation. 

Inevitably, it’ll be daunting but it’ll be over before you know it. In a previous role, I’d emailed my manager to ask for a catch up (to resign) and we booked it in for later that morning. I’d just printed off the maternity policy for another meeting and as she handed it to me off of the printer, she shot me a expectant look and a grin. It was NOT AWKWARD AT ALL when I had to deliver my actual news. 

What shouldn't I do?

You may be familiar with the scene from 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary when Bridget, utterly fed up with her sleazy boss Daniel Cleaver, leaves on the spot for a job ‘in television’. When he tries to enforce her notice period, she responds in the open plan office, "If staying here means working within ten yards of you, frankly I'd rather have a job wiping Saddam Hussein’s a**e.” before spinning on her heels to the tune of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”. 

We’ve all dreamt of a similar (and brilliant) departure but in real life, storming out is not recommended. It’s also not the same as resigning, as ACAS notes in their useful article. Instead, put your resignation in writing and always work your full notice unless you mutually agree otherwise or there are extenuating circumstances. It shows commitment, avoids leaving your colleagues in the lurch and allows sufficient time to find a replacement.

I’ve resigned... But need to change my mind!

Generally, once a resignation has been given it can't be withdrawn; unless the employer gives their express permission or if it was given in the heat of the moment, and then promptly retracted. Although most resignations are straight forward, sometimes… well, life gets in the way. 

A friend of mine had resigned, then discovered she was pregnant on December 23rd. She needed to ask her employer to take her back; a rather nerve-racking prospect by anyone’s standards. The office was closed until the New Year and so, after agonising over Christmas, at 8.30 am on January 2nd she went immediately to her department director. They had built an excellent relationship based on mutual trust and respect, and she told them honestly the reason for retraction. That they were expecting and that their plans to move cities - the original reason for resignation - had changed. With a deep breath, she asked if she could stay. The director congratulated her, smiled at what my friend describes as her "crazy, messy life", accepted immediately and consulted with HR to get things sorted. A masterclass in managing a potentially tricky situation, brilliantly.  

I’d like to thank...

When your last day finally comes around, don’t let others dictate your ceremony; do it your way. If it’s the done thing in your company and there’s an expectation you’ll say a few words, have a speech prepared with genuine thank yous. When I left Breast Cancer Care the first time in 2007 to work in Australia, I stood in front of my lovely manager, team and colleagues, who I’d worked with for four years and who had given me so much, and sobbed uncontrollably. It was very ‘Gwyneth Oscar Acceptance 1999’, but with not a single word spoken at all. I still regret it to this day. I atoned the second time around by planning my leaving speech properly.

Enjoy your leaving do, but go easy, too. You may not be returning to the office on Monday, but your colleagues are potential future contacts. In my early twenties when leaving one of my first jobs in HR, I began my leaving celebrations at 4pm in the local pub and accepted the generosity of my colleagues in buying me drinks. The leaving do ended abruptly with me literally falling out of a nightclub at midnight and incurring a black eye which required treatment by a St John’s Ambulance first aider and my arm in a sling for good measure. When I started my new job on the Monday, I was armed with an elaborate story about a gardening injury. Thankfully, social media did not exist then and fortunately for me, I’ve grown up quite a lot.

Departure - Final call

Some further suggestions on executing a graceful departure are below:

►​ Plan your exit story and tell the same narrative to all. Keep it positive so you don’t burn any bridges.  
► If an exit interview is not on offer, suggest one - the company will benefit from feedback on your time there. Be constructive and genuine, stick to facts and suggest ideas for improvement based on personal experience if you can. Polite and positive critique keeps everyone’s dignity intact.
► Deliver an excellent handover - verbal and written if you can manage it. Add to it daily, rather than scribbling a panicked, fragmentary list on the last day. Be thorough and review your task lists, diary and projects to avoid any nasty surprises when you’re gone.
► Build your networks in your final month by arranging lunches and attending internal events (balanced with getting your head down and delivering an excellent handover of course!). This creates some lovely memories, but it’s likely your paths will cross again - potential mentor, future hire/hirer or business partner - so make strong connections now.
► Take your personal items home gradually during your notice period, rather than necessitating the hire of a removal van for your shoes, personal memorabilia and plants on your final day or leaving your colleagues to arrange a courier.

You’ve approached your manager in the right way with a professional letter, your desk is spotless and you’ve totally aced your handover. You’re leaving with great memories and even better connections, with the backing of your manager and colleagues behind you as you go forth into the unknown. You did it! As Liz Carroll, Chief Executive of The Haemophilia Society wisely says "it's not about how you leave, but how you are throughout your time. Be fair, supportive and honest and it will be positive in leaving"

Congratulate yourself on a job well done and take a breather before your exciting new challenge begins. It’s going to be great!


Nicola Greenbrook - HR Specialist & Freelance Writer 

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