How to quit your job with class

By Dianna Booher—

Raise your hand if a parent warned you, “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

The accuracy rating of this warning falls higher than most “truths.” Many employees have learned the hard way that shooting down a nasty acquiescence in a boss often haunts them at some point in their careers.

Recently an ex-employee emailed me asking if I wanted to serve as a reference. He had completed three job interviews with a Fortune 100 company and faced the final hurdle on his way to the job he so desperately wanted.

I agreed to provide a reference. Within hours, his potential boss called to ask about Jim’s past work at our company.

As I answered the hiring manager’s questions, Jim’s demeanor and comments during our layoff interview 22 years earlier flashed through my mind: The economic outlook at the time looked bleak. Our customers called to get out of their contracts, citing cash flow issues. They had to stop the bleeding. By loosening the noose around those customers’ necks, we felt good about helping in their time of need — but ultimately, the drain put our own business at risk.

That’s why I had called Jim (a man in his thirties with a wife and a baby on the way) to my office to tell him we had to fire him soon. I braced myself for the worst reaction. Instead, he nodded calmly. “I understand. I know things are not going well in the industry right now. I listen to the phone conversations our representatives are having.”

I interrupted him with apologies for breaking this bad news to him. But Jim continued, “I understand. . . . All the way. . . . It’s okay. I have learned so much working here. It’s been great. Don’t worry about us, we’ll be fine. I’ll look for something else.”

Jim said goodbye to colleagues in the spirit of someone who had decided to leave the company for a better offer. Calm, confident, friendly.

So when I held the phone to give a reference two decades later, I remembered Jim’s departing comments. I’m sure that pleasant conversation in a bad situation colored my comments to his potential boss.

He got the new job.

No doubt I am not the only one who realizes that some words and behaviors are not easy to erase. Life is too short for nasty comments to stay underground. They surface and move. And such comments can affect references, referrals, potential partnerships, treatment of competitors, and relationships with colleagues for years to come.

What’s gossip got to do with it? Nothing good!

While not everyone has the power to give a negative reference or reference, almost everyone on the planet has the opportunity to gossip – or not.

A ubiquitous movie scene illustrates the damage well. The subject of the gossip happens to be in the toilet cubicle when gossipers enter the room. They talk about the “terrible”, “lazy”, “ugly”, “incompetent” or “selfish” jerk behind the barn door. After the gossips leave, the victim emerges from the toilet cubicle and vows to make things right or swears revenge.

Enemies for life.

Consider the staying power of social media. Who hasn’t posted something they wish they never said, clicked, or shared?

The only exception to this warning about what you should or shouldn’t say: criminal or unethical behavior. As a responsible citizen, neighbor or employee, you should occasionally report the “unkind”, inappropriate action to an authority. That is your duty.

But for all the other negative thoughts you tend to express in a bad work situation, think again. Just don’t open your mouth about it!

How to leave a job with class – and an open door

  • Don’t threaten; just do it. Once you’ve decided to look for another job, do it. Just don’t talk about it until you have an offer and accept it. Otherwise, your current boss may read such comments as threats or bargaining chips.
  • Simply indicate in which position you are resigning, with effect from a certain date. If you’re going straight to a new job, it’s a good idea to indicate which new position you’re accepting. It’s only common sense that your boss and team will be curious. Plus, word will eventually get around and they’ll find out. It leaves a better taste in their mouths if you forego the “game of secrecy”.
  • Offer a reason. While you are not required to provide a reason for your departure, adding your reason serves multiple purposes. It is the official line that others will share rather than give “hearsay” to those who ask. Of course, that reason can be vague: “To pursue a lifelong interest and hobby.” “To help with elderly parents.” “To oversee an important community project.” “To participate meaningfully in a non-profit cause.” “Find a position that better matches my current interests and education.”
  • Close with a note of goodwill. You can make good wishes for the further growth of the organization, or good wishes about an ongoing project in which you have been involved. Or express your gratitude for something you learned or enjoyed while in office. By closing such goodwill, you leave a door open to a variety of future opportunities.

Of course, when you leave an organization, the furthest thing you think about may be a return. But you never know when your new employer might merge with the old one. Or when you need the cooperation of your competitor. Or when your former boss might become a customer. All good reasons to hold your head high and go out with class.

Dianna Booher is the best-selling author of 49 books, including Communicate like a leader. She helps organizations to communicate clearly. Follow her up and @DiannaBooher.