Leaving your Employment – Graciously

  • June 01, 2014
  • Helen Gunnarsson

There may be 50 ways to leave your lover, but there's only one good way to leave your employment: with grace.

Maybe company-wide budget cuts have resulted in your being laid off. Or, after giving your heart and soul, not to mention more than 2,000 billable hours per year, to a firm, you’ve been passed over for partner and told that you have three months (or less) to find other employment. Or maybe the work environment is toxic, and despite a difficult job market, you’ve decided that anything, even unemployment, is better than continuing to work there.

Marilyn Moats Kennedy, a career adviser, offers this piece of advice for when you leave a job, whatever the circumstances. “You owe your employer two weeks’ notice – minimum. You need to go around and thank all the people who helped you with notes or in-person, because that’s what will be remembered.”

Anyone who’s leaving a job must “look for something positive in the experience,” advises Sheila Nielsen, a Chicago lawyer and career counsellor  - even if your supervisor was the Partner From Hell. Once you’ve decided to leave, “face the demon and resign in person. Say that you appreciate the opportunity to have worked with that person.”

It’s impossible to predict when you may have to deal with the partner again in future; “You may have to ask a favour, or be on a panel discussion together.”

Focus on preserving a good reference, Kennedy counsels. To that end, “you should go to your boss and ask for a letter of reference. If your boss will not do it, then you will understand that you need to talk to some of the other partners or staff you worked with and try to get something from them.”

If someone pries into why you left, avoid being specific and never get personal, Kennedy says. Whether the inquirer is a client, your now-former employer’s HR department, or another firm or company with whom you’re interviewing, the answer should always be the same. Signal that it was not a good fit – but don’t say anything negative.

After she was laid off in April 2009, one U.S. lawyer reacted with a tell-all email that landed on the blog “Above the Law.” Her story was then chewed over in the the rest of the legal press and blogosphere. (The lawyer is now a blogger.)

It’s obviously not an approach worth emulating; blogging about a negative employment experience isn’t likely to win praise from a future employer. “Trashing them never works because they hold the better cards. It is a fact of life that you will be judged by your behaviour, not theirs,” Nielsen warns. 

If you feel wronged, focus on forgiveness; talk through your feelings with family and friends and seek counselling if necessary. “Until you deal with any anger or grief you may have at losing your job, you run the risk of sabotaging your interviews by breaking down or starting to badmouth your former employer.”

Helen W. Gunnarsson is a lawyer and writer in Highland Park, Illinois. This article is an edited version of an article published in the Illinois Bar Journal, Vol. 97, No. 5 (May 2009). Reproduced with permission. Copyright: the Illinois State Bar Association.