3 things James Comey can teach you about leaving a job gracefully

This week, fired FBI director James Comey was in the spotlight for a very public defenestration from his job. As if the firing itself wasn’t excruciating enough, details showed Comey had been dumped unceremoniously, finding out only because the news played on the televisions behind him before he’d been officially notified. Ouch.

Yet today, Comey issued a farewell letter to his colleagues following his departure, and from a career advice standpoint, it’s one of the best.

Even though Comey’s leaving a high-profile job, there are several key takeaways everyone can see from how he’s handled the situation that are important for any person in the workforce, especially if you’re leaving a job or company under tough circumstances.

1. Never Burn a Bridge

Behind the scenes, Comey could be cursing up a storm, chugging scotch by the bottle or sobbing the corner. Reports suggest he’s chilling out in his garden in Northern Virginia.

In public, however, Comey has been stoic and straightforward, and his public note to his colleagues is kind and courteous.

To be clear: We have no idea how he’s actually feeling, and that’s a good thing.

What can you learn? When you leave, keep your true feelings to yourself — the time when they can make difference has passed by the time you’re out the door — and never burn a bridge if you don’t have to. Whatever Comey does next, he may have to work with former FBI agents or administration members, so there’s no point in alienating them. Venting publicly about the situation you’re dealing with might feel like a therapeutic exercise at the time, but it’s much like Pandora’s box: You can’t take things back once you let them out. Spilling your guts to a parent or partner is one thing; airing your dirty laundry to colleagues is a whole other thing, not to mention a big no-no. There’s a limit to empathy: Even close colleagues can be wounded by hurtful things you say about your former employer if they have no choice but to stay.

2. Make It About the Good Times

One of the biggest elephants in the room when it comes to Comey’s firing is, understandably, his relationship with boss. Instead of delving into that or focusing on the negatives, however, Comey spent most of his short note thanking his colleagues for their time together and praising them for their efforts. Even on his way out, he showed the team why he was a good leader: because he was thinking of their contributions.

Think of it this way: The final thoughts James Comey’s colleagues will have of him as a boss is him saying that working with them has been “one of the great joys of my life” instead of him being angry.

Call it recency bias. We’re influenced by what we saw last. When you’re leaving a job, your behavior during those final few days or moments will be remembered just as much as the actual work you did.

That’s why it’s important to be courteous, take extra time to thank those who helped you and as your mother probably told you, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Professionalism is a personal characteristic; your responsibility to be professional doesn’t end just because your work contract does.

3. Keep It Short

There’s no doubt that if Comey wanted to, he could have written a 30-page goodbye letter and every news outlet would’ve covered it in great detail. Instead, Comey kept his sentiments short ‘n’ sweet as he walked out the door.

Even if you don’t write a goodbye letter when you’re leaving your job, make your exit as quick and graceful as possible. There’s no reason to throw yourself a week-long goodbye party as if you deserve a state funeral, or have everyone wave at the door as you leave the building. Make sure you’ve filed any last-minute projects and updated colleagues who are taking over your work. Then, walk out without fanfare and move on. People will know how to contact you.

A lot can be said — and has been written — about Comey and his time at the helm of the FBI. Yet, regardless of all the controversy, when it comes to his goodbye letter and his actual exit, he did everything right.