Professional Leave-Taking: Crossing that bridge without burning it

So… Tangent and I were doing what we do… and one day, we were talking about the whole subject of departures. We’ve talked about getting jobs, about keeping jobs, about professional behavior while on the jobs. The thing is that even the end of a job has its own nuances of professionalism that should be attended to and observed. So, we decided to interview each other and get two well-informed and professional perspectives on how one leaves… a job.

What is appropriate notice?

Tananda: It totally depends on your position within the company, your level of education, and specificity of your duties. Notice is so that there is time to find a replacement, and get them up to speed on what it is that you do for the company. For example: If you are talking about an Executive Director position, it may require (depending on the size of the company) finding just the right person; and it might even require travel time. You’ve got to calculate that into the notice that is given. Rule of thumb for most professional jobs is two weeks. That is generally the bare minimum of a professional notice.

Tangent: When I gave my notice at my last employer, I really had no choice in the matter because my new job needed me when they needed me. If I was going to get the job, I had two weeks to take it. At the time, my employer was not even sure they were going to backfill my position after I left… So, that really dictated what I needed to do with my time. However, I have had other positions where I had to give 30 days, and even so, I had to come back and train the new person. I depends more on what you do within the company. Regardless of your notice given, if you are a professional, you are going to make sure that everything is covered and that “your people” are taken care of before you leave.

Tananda: Now back to the actual time frames, your rule of thumb. For example, the higher education you are might lengthen the amount of notice that you need to give. If you’re talking about someone with a professional license, (Masters, Doctoral) 30 days is minimum because you have to take the time to find the person with the minimum degree and credentials, but you don’t want to take the first one that shows up. Not necessarily, anyway.

For other types of positions, like academic professors, or even teachers at other levels, a semester or maybe an even academic year, is an appropriate notice. Just to let them be prepared to find the right person.

It’s what you do. It’s all about what your role is and who you are responsible for. More than the duties that you enact in your job, but who you take care of and the number of people you take care of.

Is there ever a time where it’s acceptable to just walk out?

Tananda: There are jobs, where, because of the sensitivity of the material (security issues, what have you) they’re going to simply escort you out when you’ve given notice, or on your last day. It really is one of those situations that, as bad as it sounds, the less professional and skilled position (think specificity of skills again) a lengthy notice is not needed because there are – truth be told – people literally lined up for that job. And not that people are completely replaceable or not unique, but for some jobs a warm body is all that is really needed. In a professional setting, it’s truly never okay unless you’re on the verge of Going Postal. Good example: Where you feel that there are unethical practices it would be acceptable to walk away and say, “I’m not going to get into this.”

Tangent: I have a story about that…

When I first moved to my current locale, I was working as a receptionist in one company. Due to the financial obligations upon us, I elected to take on a second job in a retail location. The manager hired and trained me, but the manager would not allow me to ever ring up a sale (in other words I never got credit for them). During the holiday rush, the manager brought on her boyfriend for extra help. A customer had a question, and I had to go find the manager and went to the back of the store where … (pause for effect) I saw boyfriend and manager doing an illicit substance in the back of the store during business hours. Now, I know that I did not handle this in precisely the best way; I freaked out and walked out never to return.

Tananda: You know what? The bottom line is: Using any substance, doesn’t matter if it’s sipping eggnog in the back room or taking a prescribed medication, if said substance inhibits judgment, it’s unacceptable and unethical behavior during business hours. Catch something like this going on in the back room and you have good reason to be leery. In your situation, Tangent, you caught them with an illegal substance, and, on top of that, there were probably some questionable business practices beforehand. I would say yes, that was an appropriate reason to just walk out.

How do you give notice?

Tananda: To say it’s all about the relationship with your direct supervisor is sort of a cop-out. I truly believe that official notice should always be given in writing, whether that is on actual dead-tree pulp or the electronic version thereof. I believe it is just professional to have a written version.

Do you want to give a heads-up to your boss who has been good to you? YES! If you’ve got a boss you’ve got a really good relationship with then you talk to them like a friend and tell them about your new opportunity or change of circumstance. “My husband is the new Dread Pirate Roberts and we’re taking off on the next available ship.” The bottom line being that I’ve done it both ways. I have literally walked into to tell the person I reported to that I had been offered a substantial raise with a change of location which was opening up opportunities for my husband (who is apparently now a Pirate) as well. Regardless of the reasons in telling this – my direct supervisor was very supportive, very proud, and I could tell by the look on his face that he was very disappointed that I was leaving. I burst into tears and it was next to impossible to keep a straight face.

Conversely, the next supervisor posed a lot of ethical concerns for me and that was a very different situation altogether. It involved me walking in, handing him an envelope with my letter of resignation in it, and walking right back out. The implied “bird” was flipped in his general direction. Not my most shining moment, professionally speaking.

When do you tell people? Co-workers? Friends?

Tangent: For me, and since the situation was very specific… I had literally 2 weeks to get everything done, let people know, get things together, tie up the loose ends, and make sure everyone was taken care of. Once the notice was given, people needed to know! They don’t necessarily need to know why, but they deserve to know the pending vacancy that you are leaving in the organization and in their lives.

Tananda: I agree. Keeping in mind that some companies and organizations have specific rituals and may have their own ideas about how they want to make that announcement. Again, it’s all about the role you play in the company. Depending on what your role is, that company may need to bolster morale, do damage control, assure people that the proverbial rats are not fleeing the proverbial sinking ship. They may want to have a “spin” on why you are leaving and they may want to dictate what that spin is. However, most places are not that uptight.

Cake or No-Cake People

Tananda: So, just a brief statement about what a dear friend and colleague refers to as the “cake” and “no-cake” people. Briefly stated, there are people who get the big send-off, and those who leave quietly… we won’t mention the ones who are escorted from the building, but you get the idea. It isn’t necessarily a reflection upon their character as human beings, but it may be a statement about the impact they made on their workplace.

That being said, there are circumstances that completely preclude the option for “cake,” but generally, the co-workers and others make sure that those people that would have had “cake” still get it even if there is no time for the big send-off inside the office.

What about current employer contact on references?

Tananda: This is prior to obtaining new employment, yes?

Tangent: Yes.

Tananda: If I say it depends, that’s another cop-out, but it does. It depends on the personality, or personality disorders, of your direct supervisors. Most places have a little check-box that says, “May we contact your current employer?” and you can always say no. If it’s a problem for them not to be able to contact your current employer then they may not want to interview you. They may want to ask about it, but most hiring places understand when you are still employed and might not want to rock the boat. (There’s a definite nautical theme in this article. AAARRRRR!) On the other hand, for a lot of higher-level professionals, they expect other people to want their quality employees, and they expect to receive those reference calls on those quality employees.

For the record, and as a courtesy, I like to let my current employer know if I’m exploring other employment options so they are prepared if someone calls asking for a reference. Not that I’m leaving. But my position is a little different. On top of my full time position, I teach and consult, so those really aren’t conflicts and they aren’t reasons for me to leave my current employer.

Tangent: If you are working for someone who is got a “not-so-great-grip-on-sanity” [different term here censored for family content]; you probably do not want them involved in the process. However, if you are working for that great boss and great employer, you would want any potential hiring agents to talk to that person who will (of course) “talk you up.” If you suck and know it, you are obviously not going to be letting any new folks out there talk to the old ones who could clue them in… and if you are completely unaware of your worth, you might just need to flip that coin and see how it lands.

Tananda: The only thing about the “if you suck and you know it” is that there are a lot of states that have legal restrictions on how much a former employer can say to someone calling with a reference question. They are technically not allowed to bad mouth you. However, they can and do ask whether or not you are rehire-able and a negative answer speaks volumes. It tells the potential new employer that your old employer would be happy to be rid of you.

Tangent: *whispered* You’re not gonna get that job.

Tananda: Precisely.


Tananda: So, we were just talking about that.

Tangent: Yep, we sure were.

Tananda: Don’t do it.

Tangent: I think that’s enough said, don’t you?

Tananda: But what about if it’s your friend getting ready to apply for a job with your former sanity-challenged boss?

Tangent: There’s… um… there’s really a very fine line between what you might tell a friend in confidence, and what you might tell a potential job-seeking employee. You don’t want to set the friend up to not get a job when they need it, but you also don’t want your friend to be challenged (and possibly use your picture for dart practice) when they end up working for your boss who wears his backside as a toboggan.

Tananda: So, bottom line? See my second statement, “Don’t do it.” And your friends have probably already seen your misery and would hopefully not pursue that line of employment anyway unless they were truly desperate.

I hated my former employer… And?

Tananda: Operative word, “Former…” And to quote Raifiki: “It’s in de past.”

(Ensue tangential conversation about Disney movies.)

Tangent: So, here’s the thing. I have another story.

Shortly after I moved here, I started working for a company where I reported to more than one person. I caught one of the people I reported to speaking to another in the break room and telling them that their job in life was to make me cry as often as possible. I hated that job. Hated it. I still see that person around this area. No matter how many years have passed, and how much I hated it, badmouthing her or the company doesn’t feel right. Talking to friends and such about the negative experience serves no positive purpose.

I try to be above reproach no matter who they are or how they have treated me. I can cut them out of my life. It gets to me. It gets to anyone, but I need to live my life to a certain philosophy.

Tananda: The point being, that rehashing and being negative in what we say and do, doesn’t remove the experience and doesn’t shine a very positive light on us or our professional behavior. And it doesn’t help us move on. It keeps us locked into looking in the rear-view mirror when we need to be looking forward.

I’m leaving people behind…

Tananda: Literally, one of my people that I was leaving, cried non-stop for about a week. That was the hardest part of leaving any job that I have left. Sometimes those people are not necessarily my employees. Sometimes they are my boss, but I tended to be a caretaker for them, too.

Tangent: In my case, having gone through this so recently: I looked at it from two different perspectives. I’m trying to make sure that my people are not left clueless about what I did for them and be able to do those things for themselves. By the same token, I am really going to miss some of those folks. I do miss some of those folks. But that said, you have a new job. There is so much new to learn, absorb, get into… I haven’t even been on Facebook lately, and that was my only connect for some of them. I have every intention of keeping in touch, but life happens. I miss my people, the ones that I saw every day that just stopped to say “hi”. <sigh> But this was a good decision for me. I need to remember that.

Tananda: Well, you haven’t managed to get rid of me yet!

Tangent: I’m good with that, actually. I’ll keep you.

What about non-competition clauses and conflicts of interest?

Tananda: Be aware of any potential issues that a new employer may have. A lot of them will want you to disclose any conflicts of interest, including friendships, volunteer work, consulting, or other income. Non-competition clauses mean that you can’t go work for somebody that has one of these agreements with your former employer. Period. End of story.

Making sure co-workers left behind are taken care of after you leave

Tangent: In my case, I feel like (especially given the administrative nature of the work I do) and most of the things people are relying on me for… people are not going to be able to do what I did. They wouldn’t know how, because I had always done it for them. My task in leaving was to leave them with the bevy of information to make sure they could do those things for themselves, or knew who to contact to get it done. I made a document that covered everything, and the response to that document was a mixed bag of incredulity and amazement that I would even put my time into making sure that people had that information. But I felt it was my responsibility.

If you are in another role, it may depend on what your employer (direct supervisor) may require to be done in preparation for your departure. There are just going to be times when it won’t make a “hill of beans”… You may not have a job that really impacts others, and truth be told it is going back to job specificity. So, how and what you leave people with may not be as important as cleaning up any potential messes. On the other hand, it comes down to what sort of person you are and the responsibility you feel to the people you leave behind.

This is a really good time to brush up on the decision-making skills. It is really up to you, unless your boss specifies, to decide what you need to do to take care of those left behind, right?

Tananda: My situation is a little different because I have the people that rely on me for their clinical support. I’ve been their teacher, their supervisor, their mentor, the encyclopedia of all trivial knowledge, a cornucopia of strange and unusual facts, and leader from a sense of stability. My decision to leave that kind of role means that I need to make sure that not only are the day-to-day tasks and job functions taken care of, but the emotional needs are met as well. My employees really get shaken up when they have to worry about reporting to someone new, even temporarily; having a new commanding officer that is running inspection. So, my job means making sure that my crew is as shiny for the new person as they can possibly be and that all of them feel confident enough in their abilities to do their jobs without me and still come out smelling like roses.

Asking for written references, letters of recommendation or introduction

Tananda: Let’s do a brief introduction on what these things actually are.

Tangent: Yes! Because, they all sound the same, but they’re really not.

Written References: These are typically three written character references from someone who knows you in a professional capacity, someone who knows you in a training or social way, then maybe someone who has known you for a long time. They are kept in your portfolio (yes, you should have a portfolio) in perpetuity…meaning forever and kept updated as your experiences warrant. These are things that talk about you as a person and the address the core of who you are.

Letters of Recommendation: These are letters addressing your appropriateness for a particular position. These are from someone who has the qualifications to judge your ability to perform the duties of the position you are seeking to fill.

Letters of Introduction: Hi, let me introduce you to Hyacinth she is awesome and you should hire her. And, more specifically, it is generally from someone who is known to the person who is potentially going to hire you. It’s a professional formality. And while it may seem kind of old fashioned in this modern era, it’s a nice touch – kind of like a flourish – and employers definitely pay attention.

Tananda: The question is, why are we talking about this? Because, if you have a decent relationship with your current employer, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get those things lined up…just in case. To catch a letter of recommendation from a respected supervisor is a big deal. Ask a former employer if they would be willing to be listed as a reference on your resume. Keep in touch with that mentor and continue to keep a good eye on their connections, so that when opportunity knocks, you can ask to be introduced.

Tangent: OK – this is great! I think we need to tie it in a nice, pretty bow now.

Tananda: But you make better bows than I do!

Tangent: But you’re better at nautical knots.

Tananda: Actually, we’re really not done. I have one more thing. Try not to burn a bridge that you’re attempting to cross because you never know who’s back there on the other side who you may need down the road. Plus, I always like to have something at the end that ties in with the title.

Tangent: Yeah. What you said. Bon Voyage!

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