How to Avoid Burning Bridges

Just last week I had a chance encounter with a former employer (who I should note I sincerely enjoyed working for). She was clearly as delighted as I by the meeting and readily offered to rehire me in her new role which allows her to oversee a significantly larger region than previously.

While I haven’t yet decided if I’m going to pursue her offer, the exchange was a great reminder of how important it is not to burn bridges when we leave an employer (because you never know if you may be working with them again in the future, if for no other reason!).

I also thought this would make an excellent follow up post to last week’s discussion of Networking Strategies, because creating connections is only a small part of building your network — it’s also important to both maintain those relationships and to avoid damaging them (aka burning bridges) whenever possible.

Here are some of my best tips for how to avoid burning bridges when you leave an employer:

Keep it professional. Pretty much everyone I know has had a ‘bad boss’ at some point in their career. And if you have been fortunate enough to escape this experience, consider yourself lucky.  (Total side note: I’m actually doing research with some colleagues about abusive supervisors and what makes people continue to work for them despite their bad behavior. — IT. IS. SO. FASCINATING. And, I would love to geek out with you if you ever want to talk more about this. 🙂 )

If you’re among the majority, there’s a chance you’ve even fantasized about resigning and telling your boss just how much you have hated working for him or her. And then you probably envisioned you would storm out of their office and skip merrily away into the sunset, right? While I absolutely see the appeal, I’m going to caution you against making things personal (even though you may have completely real and legitimate reasons) when leaving your job.

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Instead, try to focus on what you’re gaining professionally by moving into your new position. For instance, your new employment may provide opportunities for upward mobility that aren’t available within your current organization. Or, it may offer more flexible working hours, or the option to work from home — which could be especially important if you’re planning to go back to school. Or, it may just be that changing employers will provide you with an immediate pay increase and/or a better benefits package. These are all completely respectable reasons for leaving a job and will likely leave your employer with a more positive impression of you (than in the previous scenario).

In addition to focusing on your professional goals and opportunities, it’s important to give adequate notice of your intent to resign. Don’t leave your employer in a difficult situation by telling them today is your last day. And please, do not tell them you are quitting in a text (this is the social equivalent of breaking up with someone via text and it is totally not okay – in either case!). Instead, provide a formal resignation letter and give at least 2 weeks’ notice. Keep your letter brief and to the point and avoid venting your personal grievances. If your employer offers an exit interview, you may choose to address any issues at that time (or you might consider bringing your concerns to your employer’s attention before you resign so that they actually have an opportunity to do something about it).

Express your gratitude. Has anyone helped you along the way while at your current place of employment? The answer is almost definitely a resounding yes! So, say thank you to those who helped train you, mentor you, assisted you, covered for you when you were gone, and so on. Also, consider thanking your boss or supervisor, especially if you’ve developed a good working relationship with this person. It’s not all that common to actually like the people you work with (sadly), so if the culture of your workplace has rocked, you should make a point of letting those people know!

Saying thank you doesn’t have to be elaborate — You could take some of your colleagues to lunch or maybe throw a small farewell event after hours. A simple handwritten note can also go a long way. You could send a basket of fruit, or flowers, or bring homemade cookies to your office. It doesn’t have to be much, but taking the time to actually show your gratitude can have a huge impact. And honestly, people have a tendency to sort of light up when you let them know how much you’ve enjoyed working with them – which can be so gratifying to witness (because of all the good feels)!

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Assist with the transition. It  can be hard to find an adequate replacement (especially if you’re really good at what you do!). You can help make the transition smoother for your colleagues and all others involved by assisting in this process. Your employer may even invite you to help interview potential candidates (which really, who better than you to help find your replacement – you know exactly what this job takes!). If possible, you could offer to assist with training or other transitional procedures.

It’s also a good idea to tie up any loose ends prior to your last day. For example, you may want to let your clients know you’re leaving and introduce them to a colleague who will be available to assist them during the interim. Be sure to delegate any incomplete work and give colleagues a status update for any ongoing work – including important upcoming deadlines they should know about.

If it’s possible and you’re willing, it’s also good practice to make yourself available after leaving (at least for a short period) to answer questions (like sharing the password to an account that may need to be accessed after you leave). It may not be ideal, but I just think it’s best not to be a jerk to people, especially if it really doesn’t take much effort on your part (like answering a quick question over the phone).

I hope it goes without saying, but part of helping with this transitional process also means not checking out early. It’s easy to get a sort of  “senior-itis”  when you’re nearing the end of your term and getting all pumped up to start that new position.  Remember, your colleagues aren’t leaving for a new and exciting opportunity – they’re staying behind after you leave. So pay them the common courtesy of doing your job and remaining present until you’re actually done.

Avoid badmouthing. You may not like everyone you’ve ever worked with, but badmouthing them or your organization is simply in poor taste. It will not impress your new employer to talk about all of the faults of your previous boss or to list all of the problems within your former organization (in fact, it may do exactly the opposite and cause them to take pause in hiring you).

You definitely can and should use your knowledge and previous experiences to help you in your new role. However, doing so likely won’t require you to provide detailed explanations that could be potentially embarrassing or even damaging for others. In general, I think it’s best to keep those stories to yourself.

If you happen to be in a position where sharing these experiences (e.g., cautionary tales) could actually be valuable to others and provide teachable moments – like as an educator – you can still do so without causing harm. Simply removing the names of actual people, places, organizations, etc. can make your stories totally shareable without the risk of badmouthing. This is something I frequently did as an instructor when sharing  my own experiences to help protect the identity of individuals (and because it wasn’t at all important to the lesson I was teaching).

Respect your former employer. If you worked with a team of people you just loved because they were amazing and innovative individuals (like many of the people I’ve worked with), you may be tempted to entice them to move with you to your new organization. While you may truly have their best interest at heart, realize that poaching your colleagues from your former employer is not a very good practice and it will probably be noticed.

Allow for adequate time to pass after you’ve started your new position before contacting former colleagues about potential opportunities with your new employer. Also, be aware that doing so is likely to get back to other former colleagues who may be hurt that you didn’t think of them!

I generally think a better practice is to offer information only when it is requested. If your former colleagues see that the move you made was an awesome decision for you, they’re likely to ask you about potential opportunities for employment and that’s an excellent invitation to share this information without coming across as pushy or threatening. I also think it just shows that you have enough respect for your previous organization not (attempt) to steal employees away from them.

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Final Thoughts

I love the bridge metaphor because ‘burning a bridge’ means you won’t have the option of crossing it again in the future – it’s simply gone. However, working to maintain the bridges you’ve created will allow you to keep them open for potential opportunities down the road.

Most of the practices I’ve mentioned have a lot to do with common courtesy and professionalism. If you place your focus on these, I think you will find that your resignation will be better received by those you’re leaving.

Remember, your boss and colleagues are human beings (even if they’re not always you’re favorite people to work with). If you show them respect, it is more likely to be reciprocated.

 

References

Kleiman, J. & Hedges, K. (2011). How to avoid burning bridges in the workplace. Forbes. Retrieved November 8, 2018, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/work-in-progress/2011/01/07/how-to-avoid-burning-bridges-in-the-workplace/#7e76b41853cc

Rasmussen, D. (2015). 6 ways to avoid burning bridges by leaving a job. Work It Daily. Retrieved November 5, 2018, from https://www.workitdaily.com/burning-bridges-job-avoid/

Team Synergis. (2018). How to avoid burning bridges. Synergis. Retrieved November 5, 2018, from https://www.synergishr.com/how-to-avoid-burning-bridges/

Photo Credits (in order of appearance)

  1. Bridge, Photo by Matthew Ronder-Seid on Unsplash
  2. Ready, Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash
  3. Typewriter and hands, Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash
  4. Rope Bridge, Photo by Michel Paz on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “How to Avoid Burning Bridges

  1. I love this post. It reminds me of my very first teaching job when I had just graduated with my undergraduate teaching degree. I was a mere 23 years old. I interviewed for a teaching job at a high school a few hours away from me. After the interview, I was told I was the top candidate! I was thrilled! But then the next day got a call from the Superintendent who told me that a former student from the school had decided she wanted to move back to the town and “threw her hat in the ring as well.” Since she knew the town and the teachers well, they decided to give the job to her. I was angry and so disappointed. I wanted to call and tell them how incredibly unprofessional it was and perhaps even challenge their ethics since I had essentially been given a verbal offer.

    Instead, I took a few deep breaths and told them I hope it worked out and that if they ever had any other openings in my teaching area, I would be interested.

    A few days later, I got another call from the Superintendent apologizing and telling me the other person “had not worked out” after all. He told me he had been impressed with my reaction and thought I had the professionalism and maturity it would take even though I was fresh out of college and a first year teacher. I accepted and taught there for a couple of years before returning to college for my Master’s degree.

    It was a great lesson for a young teacher and new professional. Thanks for the reminder!

    Liked by 1 person

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