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Resign with Class

The last impression can be more important than the first impression. Here’s how to exit as gracefully as you entered.

By Lee E. Miller
FILED UNDER: Presentation, Quit.
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How do you want to be remembered at a company? The way you leave your employment is as important as what you did while you were employed there.

For example:

When I was the head of human resources at TV Guide, I had the difficult task of letting go one of our senior executives as a result of reorganization. The decision was not based on performance issues, and I thought well of him as an executive. When I called him into my office to give him the news, I had a generous severance package to give him and was prepared to offer to help him with his search for another position. To my surprise, when I told him of the decision, he started screaming at me.

When he left my office to pack up his things, he took the opportunity to tell everyone he saw how unfairly he was being treated. Suffice to say that, after that incident, my view of him changed and so did that of the other executives at the firm. I have no doubt how he handled his departure from the company hindered his search for new employment.

Whether you are being let go or leaving to accept another opportunity, how you handle your exit will determine how people in the organization remember you. It can also have a significant effect on your future career. So it is important to exit gracefully. Here are a few tips on the right way to leave:

Do not say anything bad about the company

Despite your inclination to talk about everything that might be wrong at the company and the encouragement of human resources to do so as part of their exit interview, avoid the temptation. Even if what you are saying is true, you will be viewed badly for sharing that information. Don’t burn any bridges. You may need a reference in the future. If your new opportunity doesn’t work out, then you may even want to come back.

Tell your boss first

If you’re leaving on your own initiative, go to your boss before you approach anyone else. That guarantees he won’t hear it before you have a chance to do so in person. Next, provide the company with a formal resignation letter to be placed in your file. Be gracious in what you write, and thank the company for the opportunities you have been given.

Give your employer reasonable notice

You will be anxious to begin your new job and maybe take a little time off, but give your employer enough time to be able to make the transition smooth. Two weeks is standard but depending on the situation, an additional week might be appropriate. However, if two weeks is not enough and your employer asked you to stay longer, you can offer to make yourself available by phone or e-mail after you leave to deal with issues that might come up.

That doesn’t mean you have to work night and day to try to finish up all your ongoing projects before you leave. Instead, inform your employer about the status of the projects you are working on and anything that needs immediate attention.

It is best to do so in the form of a written memo so that there are no miscommunications.

Find out who will be taking over your responsibilities (if the company knows) and help that person understand what needs to be done.

Ask for a letter of reference

It is a good idea to ask your boss for a reference letter. At some time in the future, you may need a reference, and you may lose touch with your boss. Moreover, over time people forget what you accomplished. Therefore, it is a good idea to get a letter of reference before you leave. Make sure it describes what your job entailed and your overall major accomplishments. It doesn’t hurt to remind your boss at the time you ask of what those accomplishments were.

Send a farewell e-mail to your colleagues

Let everyone know that you are leaving to accept a new position, retire or pursue other opportunities. Be complimentary about the company and express your appreciation for your colleagues’ help and support. If you are taking another position, it is usually best not to share the name of your new employer because they may not have announced your arrival yet. You may want to give your co-workers your personal contact information or tell them you will send it once you get settled. That way they will be able to stay in contact with you.

Talk with human resources to determine your benefits

Find out what benefits you are eligible to receive upon termination. If your separation is not voluntary, negotiate a severance and determine what you need to do to receive unemployment benefits and COBRA (medical benefits continuation). Whether voluntary or involuntary, see if you can use or be paid for unused vacation and sick pay. If you participate in a pension plan, determine if you are able to cash it out or what your options are for receiving pension benefits. Also inquire about the process for keeping or rolling over your 401K plan. Consider using any money in flexible benefit plans or medical savings accounts because you may forfeit whatever is remaining in those accounts when you leave.

Handling your departure right can determine whether you have the opportunity to return at some future date if you decide that is something you want to do. It will also play a major role in what people say about you after you leave and can affect your professional reputation. Mishandling it it can hurt your prospects for future employment. So treat your departure in the same way you would any other important career move. Be professional, be gracious, and be forward looking.

Lee E. Miller is managing director of NegotiationPlus.com and an adjunct professor at Columbia University, New York. He is a career coach, corporate trainer, negotiating strategist and professional speaker. He is the author of Get More Money on Your Next Job … In Any Economy (McGraw Hill, 2009) and A Woman’s Guide to Successful Negotiating (McGraw Hill, 2010), which he cowrote with Jessica Miller, his eldest daughter.

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