Many people stay at a job too long, and by the time they quit, they are really quite ready to move on. This can result in the employee burning bridges with managers and Human Resources staff at the old job. When you've stayed at a job too long, making an unprofessional remark is tempting and it may come back to haunt you.
An example of unprofessional, bridge-burning behavior occurred in a small technology firm. One of the programmers sent out this note to say good-bye to his fellow employees: "Good-bye all you suckers. I'm outta here." How do you think that note went over with the other committed employees?
Why Burning Bridges Is Bad—Especially for the Quitting Employee
This is bad news. You don't want to burn bridges, at all. It doesn't matter whether you think you'll never need to see these people again, you still need to take care that you leave your job in a professional manner.
Why? You don't control the future. You may say, “I have a great new job lined up, so I don't need them as a reference.” Well, the interesting fact about job hunting is that most people don't call your current boss for a reference—because most people keep their job hunting confidential.
Who do they call? Your previous boss. So, you didn't need this boss's reference to get your current job, but you might well need the reference to get the next one. Recruiters and hiring managers can call anyone they like—no restrictions. They may only call the people on your list, or they may call your last company. You don't get to control who they call.
Another factor you can't control? Who you'll run into at work. You may hate your boss so much that you would never, ever, not in a million years want to work at any company where your boss worked. But, what about your coworkers? What about that guy in marketing with whom you've never even talked?
You do something stupid on your last day and he'll know about it, and five years later when you're interviewing for a job, he'll work at that company. The hiring manager will say, “Hey, Joe, you used to work at Acme Corp. Do you know Jane Doe?”
And you know what Joe will say? Joe who never even talked to you? He won't say, “I think she was there at the same time I was, but I never worked with her.”
No, he'll say, “Oh my word, she quit without giving any notice and threw the company into a spin. I heard that a client showed up for a meeting and she had quit and no one was prepared and they lost an account because of it.” Yeah, Joe's company isn't going to hire you.
So, how do you avoid burning bridges? Here are five tips.
Give Proper Notice
In most industries in the US, that's two weeks' notice. This two weeks does not include any vacation time you may want to take, so don't think you can give your notice and then take that vacation time you've accrued.
Most companies won't let you take your vacation time after you've given notice, and even if they do, that's not part of your notice. Some industries have longer norms, and you should make sure you follow those norms. Otherwise, your quitting will leave a bad taste in everyone's mouths. For example, a medical doctor might provide three months notice so her patients have time to obtain a new physician.
Document Your Job
Theoretically, the purpose of the notice period is to train the next person for your job. In reality, it's unlikely that your boss will hire someone new during your notice period unless she has a viable internal candidate. So, what are you supposed to do instead?
Document what you do. Remember that your boss and coworkers probably don't know all of the day-to-day work that you do and how. Items to especially note for those coworkers who will have to fill in for you when you depart:
- Regular reports
- Passwords for everything you control
- Client lists
- Already scheduled meetings
- Project statuses
This documentation is critical to a smooth transition. If you make it easy for those who stay behind, they'll remember you fondly and you won't leave bridge burned.
Work Until the End
Yes, you have two weeks left, so you want to take long lunches and spend most of your time chatting with coworkers about how you're glad you're getting out of this horrible place. You know what your boss will remember about you if you do this?
Not all of the times you worked late hours to get things done. Not the times you saved the day by coming up with an amazing solution. She'll remember how you turned into a total slacker when you gave notice. If you stop doing actual work before your last day, consider that bridge burned.
Remain Positive About Your Workplace
The biggest reason people leave jobs isn't money or commuting time (although those absolutely play a role in it), but their relationship with the boss. You may be as relieved as all get out to have a new job and glad you don't have to pretend to be happy in a horrible job anymore.
But you need to continue pretending. When people ask if you're excited about your new job, the answer is always, “I'm really excited about the new challenges, but I'm going to miss this place and my coworkers so much.” Think of it this way—you'll miss talking about how much you hated your job with your spouse over dinner.
Keep Those Professional Contacts—Professional
It's possible to burn a bridge even after you're long gone. How? Your network. Some industries are tight-knit, and your old boss and coworkers will hear about you, so you need to remain positive about your past positions.
Other industries are large enough that you won't necessarily run into these people professionally again, but you might run into them on social media. Did you make a snide comment about your old boss on a friend's Facebook post? Well, their security is set to friends of friends and one of their friends is friends with your boss.
Facebook's algorithms put that right in your boss's feed because you mentioned Acme Corporation and it knows that is something she talks about a lot. Oops.
Connect with people on LinkedIn. If you see something in your field that you know might interest a colleague, send them an email saying, “Did you see this white paper?” Keep the relationship positive and keep in contact. You may need a reference in the future.
These five steps are recommended when you leave a job. You want your former employer to think about you in a positive and professional way. They will if you take these five steps to professionalism. You will burn no bridges and never feel the pain of a bridge you burned burning you back.
Suzanne Lucas is a freelance writer who spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers.