Burning Bridges is for Arsonists:
How to Leave Your Job with Class
Ready to jump ship? Sick of your job and want a new one? Time for graduate school or a trip abroad?

You’re not the only one who feels that way. Between 50-80% of all college graduates leave their first job within three years of landing it, (Holton, Ed. The New Professional. Petersen’s Guides, 1991.), and the rest of us only stick it out at a job for about five years, on average. What does this mean to you? Plenty of job-searching…and job-leaving. And like everything else, there is a right way…and a wrong way…to handle these things. Do things right, and you keep your career moving nicely along. Do things wrong and you can burn a bridge, hurt your reputation, and remain stuck.

How does the song go? “Saying goodbye is hard to do...” Or is it, “Take this job and shove it…”?

After landing a (hopefully) great job and having a (hopefully) great experience, you’ve determined that it’s time to move on. Happens all the time. However, what doesn’t happen all the time is the graceful exit. Pick up a copy of The Wall Street Journal, and you’ll read all kinds of stories about disgruntled, hurt employees who leave their jobs on a bad note. Heard the one about the guy who sent the angry email to everyone in the company when he quit? How about the one where the woman gave the boss a piece of her mind (and then some) before heading out the door? These people are out there and you don’t want to be one of them. Trust me, I know. I WAS one of them.

Here’s the story: I landed a pretty plum job after graduate school. It was the kind of job everyone else from business school wanted, but I got, and felt pretty darn superior about it (let’s just say modesty wasn’t my strong suit). Let’s also just say that the job wasn’t a good fit, and I should have realized this before I accepted the offer. So why did I say yes when I should have said no? Hubris, my friends, plain and simple. I was a little dazzled and blinded by the prestigious company, and I was a little more than flattered to think that they wanted little old moi to join them.

From the start, I was frustrated on the job. My boss had hired me to mow the lawn, but I wanted to build the Eiffel Tower. Had I been a bit more humble at the time, I would have realized that I didn’t have a clue about how to build the Eiffel Tower, but as I said, modesty wasn’t my strong suit.

Fortunately, I realized I was in the wrong place and managed to land another job which would be a better fit. During my exit interview with HR, a common practice at most companies, I shared that I felt annoyed on the job and by my boss. I was frustrated that I hadn’t been “used to my fullest potential” and was “bored and unchallenged.” And on…and on..and on I went.

Is it wrong to offer constructive feedback during an exit interview? Certainly not. But my tone was unappreciative (after all, they did hire me, train me, and pay me), immature, and whiny. Even worse, my boss, a nice guy, heard about my less-than-flattering comments, and didn’t appreciate them. I shot myself in the foot, and it took me a long time to repair the relationship with him and my former employer.

It didn’t have to be that way, and I learned that lesson…painfully.

Whether you’re leaving a job, hanging up the phone after having an informational interview with someone, or simply saying goodbye to a new contact you met at a networking event, consider how you can end on a high note with that individual and opportunity. Write a thank you note, send a follow up email – and then, send another in a few weeks or months. Drop your old boss a note out of the blue and let her know how much you appreciated what you learned from her – even if you didn’t show it at the time. (P.S. I did this one – and I can’t tell you how much my old boss loved it. Not to mention the fact that it put me back on her radar screen, and she referred two pieces of business to me.)

The world is shrinking, and word about you travels fast. Do yourself and your career a favor and end every professional encounter the right way. And, if you blow it – like I did – try again. It’s never too late to repair a broken bridge and build a new one.

Author's Bio: 

Elizabeth Freedman is an expert in career and workplace issues. She is the author of Work 101: Learning the Ropes of the Workplace without Hanging Yourself and The MBA Student’s Job-Seeking Bible, and was a 2005 finalist for College Speaker of the Year, awarded by the Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities. Elizabeth runs a Boston-based career-development and coaching firm; clients include PricewaterhouseCoopers, Thomson Reuters and The Gillette Company. To bring Elizabeth to your next association event or workplace meeting, please visit http://www.elizabethfreedman.com.