Career Advice Apr 11 2012

How to Quit Your Job Gracefully

By jeremy greenfield

You only get one chance at a last impression.

When you've given two weeks notice at your current job, you may think you can lay back and just coast before joining your next employer. Don't. Those last two weeks can be critical to ensuring you leave on good terms with your reputation intact.

Psychological studies suggest that the last impression you leave is more important than your entire body of work. This "recency effect," as it's known, means your last days on the job are critical to forging long term connections with colleagues who could help you later in your career. Current team members could be future employers, clients or references, so it's important to leave them thinking highly of you.

"Your tenure with your employer doesn't end until the very last minute of your very last day," said Alexandra Levitt, a workplace consultant and the author of several career books. "You absolutely want to leave a good impression."

You absolutely want to leave a good impression

Leaving a good impression is doubly important in an age when corporate turmoil means a merger, acquisition or sale could put you back at your old company, facing the same folks you just left.

Here's what you need to do while singing your swan song at your old job.

Take a Trip to Human Resources

A job departure leaves you with several human resources issues to take care of, like health insurance, your 401K and reviewing any agreements you may have signed that could affect your career after you've left.

After giving notice to your supervisor, alert HR that you're leaving, said Judith Gerberg, director of Gerberg & Co., a New York-based career-consulting firm.

Employers don't usually cover health benefits beyond the last month of your employment and you may have a lapse before health insurance coverage begins at your next job. The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, known as COBRA, guarantees that you can continue to enjoy the same health benefits after you leave. However, you'll pay a fee that's usually higher than what you pay for health insurance through your company. HR will have the details.

HR will also review your 401K retirement savings plan. Funds paid into the 401K at the new job won't accrue into your old account, so you'll have to decide whether to consolidate the two accounts.

Get copies of any employment contracts you may have signed. They may have non-compete agreements buried within them that stipulate you can't work at a rival company or with the same clients for a certain period of time.

"If you signed any agreements, such as confidentiality, non-compete, non-solicitation, employment agreement, retention agreement, or even an acknowledgment at the end of your handbook, make sure you read and understand any post-employment restrictions," said Donna Ballman, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based employment attorney.

"You'd be surprised where employers sneak in non-competes saying you can't work for a competitor for a year or two after you leave. If you know you signed something and don't have a copy, ask HR for a copy. If you are in doubt about what your obligations are, have an employment lawyer in your state review it."

Make sure you do all this before your last day, while you still have the opportunity to speak with HR face-to-face.

"HR is going to be less responsive once you've left," said Levitt.

Professionalism and Positivity

Acting professionally over your last two weeks will go a long way toward making a lasting, positive impression on your colleagues.

"Pretend that your last two weeks is like your first two weeks at a job," said Hallie Crawford, founder of Create Your Career Path, an Atlanta-based career-consulting firm.

Attend all scheduled meetings, show up on time, leave when others do and work hard while you're in the office.

An employee at the Altman Initiative Group, a Denver, N.C.-based HR-consulting company, was considered a superstar within the firm. He was quickly promoted and soon, a larger firm lured him away. After he gave notice, he neglected to maintain the same professional behavior that earned him his coworkers' accolades.

"After he turned in his notice, he ignored our dress code, slouched back in his chair and showed no interest in doing anything," said Denise Altman, principal at the company. He was not welcome back.

Professionalism extends to things you shouldn't do and say.

Don't brag about your new position or say things that would indicate to your colleagues that you're leaving what you see as a bad situation, said Deborah Brown-Volkman, an East Moriches, N.Y.-based career coach.

"It helps if you have a good answer as to why you're leaving and where you're going next," she said. "People are going to ask you and if you say something negative or act like a jerk, it could hurt you down the road."

Keep Deadlines, Finish Projects

Remember, your coworkers will still be there after your last day, and they will likely have to do any work you leave behind. If you leave them with a mess, they'll remember that when you ask for a reference.

Take ownership of your responsibilities and ongoing projects, said Sherri Thomas, author of "Career Smart. Five Steps to a Powerful Personal Brand."

"Your manager doesn't know about every little thing you do," she said. "When you leave, you're going to create some chaos and your manager and colleagues are going to have to pick up the slack, so you want to be sensitive to that."

You won't be able to complete every project, so do those you can finish that will also boost your resume, said Thomas.

Pass on your website log-in information and relevant passwords to your superior before you leave, said Kevin Spence, president of CareerThoughts.com, a Midlothian, Va.-based online career consulting business. You may even need to conduct training sessions for colleagues or your replacement.

"The best employee I ever had spent the last two weeks of her employment documenting her entire job knowledge-base for the next person," said Dr. Janice Presser, CEO of The Gabriel Institute, a Philadelphia-based technology-staffing firm. "You bet I sing her praises to anyone who asks for a reference."

Before your last day, make sure you have a record of what you completed in the last two weeks and what you handed off to someone else, said Crawford.

Supersize Your Network, Get References

Before you leave, ask your boss and colleagues to connect with you on LinkedIn. It will be easier to get them to connect with you, or give you a recommendation, while you're still there, said Crawford.

"Get any signed endorsements or recommendations in writing," said Wanda Kiser, an Atlanta-based career coach and founder of Elite Resume Writing.

Meet with executives and colleagues who you may have worked with to tell them you're leaving and tell them how much you enjoyed working with them, said Thomas.

"Supersize your network. Nurture the relationship before you leave," she said.

These relationships also extend outside the office. Let clients and others you've worked with know that you're leaving but that you'd like to stay in touch, said Steve Langerud, director of professional opportunities at Greencastle, Ind.-based DePauw University.

Don't Take Anything That Doesn't Belong to You

There are things in the office, like equipment or proprietary company information, that are not yours and should not be taken with you. That extends to lists of clients or products you may have created.

While you do own your contacts, you don't own the contents of your emails and you may not have the right to solicit business from former clients after you leave, depending on employment contracts you signed.

"Don't copy confidential information. Even if you didn't sign a non-compete agreement, you still can't run off with trade secrets," said Ballman, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., employment lawyer. "In your last few weeks, they'll be watching you like a hawk. If you copy anything from your computer, send yourself a bunch of work emails, or do anything they think is suspicious, they might accuse you of stealing company information even if you didn't."

Not stealing extends to making sure you return any ID badges, cell phones or other technology that you may use outside of the office but that you don't own.

Exit Interview

The exit interview is one of the most important times in your last two weeks. Regardless of how you feel about the company and why you're leaving, most career experts strongly recommend that you keep any negative thoughts and feelings to yourself during the exit interview ? it will only reflect poorly on you.

The urge to take revenge on a boss or colleague who may have wronged you by telling HR what terrible people they are will be strong during the exit interview. Studies show that most people who do engage in revenge feel bad about it later.

"People shouldn't do it, but they do," said Bob Bies, a professor of management at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business and author of the book "Getting Even: The Truth About Workplace Revenge And How to Stop It." "Emotions short-circuit their decision-making process and in that moment there's a moral and irrational thought that tells you to do it."

Research by Bies and his team over fifteen years suggests that those who engage in workplace revenge feel as if they are doing justice at the time and that the target of their revenge "deserved it," but later feel bad.

In fact, taking revenge in an exit interview can often have disastrous results for innocent bystanders in the office. "The company may target colleagues that you were friends with," said Bies. "The consequences for them can be real."

Crawford recommends developing a script for your exit interview and sticking with it.

"What if they ask you a question about your boss and you have the urge to say something bad and you're not prepared for it?" she said.

Saying Goodbye

Write a "goodbye" email to your boss and colleagues thanking them for working with you, said Levitt.

"Show deference to the fact that you spent a lot of time at this employer and it was valuable time," she said. "Express appreciation, even if it's not true, because it will make them feel good."

Don't overdo it by sending the email to the whole company or to people you didn't work closely with, especially senior management, warned Levitt.

You should send this goodbye email in the afternoon of your last day. Most people will already know you are leaving and will have had time in to say goodbye in their own way and hopefully connect with you on LinkedIn or provide a reference.

After You've Left

One of the purposes of your goodbye email is to let people know where they can contact you after you're gone. Most career experts recommend leaving your personal email address. If you don't feel comfortable doing this, most of those who you wish to hear from again will be able to contact you through LinkedIn.

Former colleagues will often want your cell phone number, in case they have questions about your duties after they leave. This can be a sensitive issue. On the one hand, you've left the company. On the other hand, how you handle this can mean the difference between leaving on good terms with your former colleagues and leaving them thinking you shirked your responsibilities.

"What you do here depends on the situation," said Crawford. "You also don't want them to walk all over you, you want to go on to your next job and perform well there."

Write to Jeremy Greenfield at jeremydg@gmail.com




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