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The M Dash

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How To Quit Your Job Gracefully

June 25, 2016

Have you ever quit a job in a hollering, stomping, spectacular fuck-you fashion? Me neither. But I do know someone (okay, fine, a friend does) who even threw a chair—in front of clients! Or so I’ve heard. Anyway, I don’t think I could toss furniture without hurting myself, but I’d be lying if I said I’d never harbored fantasies about breezing out the revolving doors on a sunny afternoon and just… not going back. Ever.

For the most part, though, quitting is a delicate affair. (They call it “tender” your resignation for a reason, perhaps.) And as job tenures get shorter and shorter—the average American worker now changes jobs 10-15 times over his or her career, according to a recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics—people are quitting more often. Which means you should know how to do it well, or at least prevent it from being more awkward than necessary.

I spoke to over a dozen people across different industries about their own resignation experiences, which ranged from the Jerry McGuire-style blowup to tearful, huggy departures. Below, their stories to quit by.

Your departure can only be as good as the company itself.

“My best quitting experiences were at places where I also had a positive experience as an employee, because it involves mutual respect,” says Alex, a software developer. “My one really negative quitting experience happened at a place that was antagonistic all around, and I just walked out one day. When they sent me an exit interview form, I wrote a very thorough, thoughtful explanation about what was so unacceptable to me, and really tried to factually articulate what had gone on that was so intolerable. I’ve kept tabs on the company since, and it doesn’t seem to have improved.” 

Be polite and positive, but be firm.

When my friend Beatrice left her position as chief of staff to the president of a company where she’d worked for eight years, she took great pains to do so on good terms. (The company culture prized loyalty so much that she was nervous her boss might freak out and fire her when she gave notice.) He didn’t, but he wasn’t a prince about it either. “He was graceful, but cold,” she says. She offered to train her interim replacement, typed up extensive handover notes, and made it clear that her colleagues could contact her with questions after she left. In terms of preserving her reputation, which was already stellar, her efforts paid off: “The new president of the company contacts me fairly often with questions about certain procedures,” says Beatrice, who still talks to her old colleagues “all the time.” In hindsight, though, she wishes she’d pushed back when it came to her departure date, which was later than she would have liked. “If I mic-drop left, then of course that would look bad, but I didn’t need to worry so much,” she says. “I wound up working right up until my new job started, which I wouldn’t recommend.”

Dramatic exits aren’t always bad.

Veronica, a copywriter, quit her job at a branding agency after she and her boss had a good old-fashioned falling out—which, at that particular workplace, was not unusual. “Things were getting increasingly contentious, and one day he bawled me out for a mistake I had made. I screamed, ‘Fuck this, I quit,’ and stormed across the open-plan office to my desk,” she recalls. He slunk after her, tried to calm her down, and eventually succeeded in convincing her to stay long enough to finish up a project with an important client. Still, their relationship was never repaired, and they don’t keep in touch—which is just fine with her. “Since then, a number of former colleagues have reached out to me, and there’s a large network of recovering employees from that place—a lot of bonding over how terrible it was,” she says. “I don’t know if my fire-and-brimstone confrontation was necessarily good for my career, but standing up for myself was important.”

No matter how hard you try to be professional, your boss might still be a jerk about it.

“I was terrified to tell my boss I was leaving, because she was a lunatic,” says Claudia, a product designer, who was recruited for a new job by a former (and equally traumatized) colleague. “I sent my boss an email telling her I wanted to speak to her privately at some point during the day, but I ended up telling her in front of the Pret-a-Manger in midtown, because the only time she would talk to me was while she walked to get lunch. Then I did a victory lap around the block.”

Don’t be afraid to wait for your bonus before quitting. You’re there to make a living, after all.

“I left my last job at a small startup when it was bought by a massive corporation that I didn’t want to work for,” says Aaron, an engineer. “I waited until after the transition, so that I could get the transition bonus that every employee received, even though I had no intention of staying.” The higher-ups weren’t happy about his departure, but there was nothing they could do.

Giving ample notice is nice, but often unnecessary.

“I gave two months’ notice when I left my last job, with the intention of helping the company find a replacement for me and then training that person, but it wound up being totally unnecessary—they weren’t really organized enough to find someone within that time frame,” says Katherine, a project manager for a large manufacturing firm. “I thought I was being helpful, but it wound up being pointless.”

On the flip side, prepare to be shown the door.

As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, plenty of employers don’t see the need to keep you around once you’ve resigned. “I gave a standard two weeks’ notice when I left my last job, expecting to work that whole time, and they told me to leave that Friday,” says Anna, who works in advertising. “I was sort of insulted, and I could have used that last paycheck.”

You don’t always have to keep it a secret that you’re looking.

Matthew recently left a large management consulting firm—where he worked for nine years—to take a new job at a startup. “When I got the offer, I talked to one of my mentors even before I had made up my mind,” he says. “Over the next four weeks, I had conversations about it with several senior people in the company. When I finally made the decision to leave, I told them right away, and then we settled on an actual departure date and transition plan.” The whole thing went so smoothly that he has a standing offer, should he ever want to return.

If you feel sincerely warm and fuzzy about the people you worked with, make an effort to tell them in person.

“When I gave my two weeks’ notice at my old job, I put 10 minutes on the calendar of the CEO, CFO, and CMO to thank them in person for creating an environment where I could thrive,” says Jacqueline, who now oversees visual merchandising for a clothing label. “It was a 500-person company and I was a lowly manager at the time, so I think they were surprised to see me, but I hope they were touched.”

And then keep telling them—in writing! Embrace the love! And keep in touch.

“When I gave notice, I wrote notes to everyone who I worked with closely, and frequently emailed with them after I left,” says Grace, a corporate lawyer. “That firm actually just offered me a job—again.”

All names have been changed.

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Charlotte Cowles is a New York-based writer​ ​and editor.​ ​Her work has been published in New York Magazine,​ Harper's Bazaar,​ and Art in America. She'd always rather be at book club. Read more of Charlotte's posts.

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