The Measure

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How to Quit Your Job Without Being a Jerk

4 key principles for making smooth career transitions.

October 6th, 2015

The movies “Fight Club” and “American Beauty” each have a wonderful “I quit” moment. These scenes resonate because they show the American worker bee finally sticking it to The Man in grand fashion.

Sadly, while those of us in the real world might fantasize about leaving a job in a blaze of glory, it’s far better to exercise restraint. Sean Murphy, an organizational psychologist based in Chicago, recently gave us some tips for smooth career transitions.

Don’t Burn Bridges

“The career community that people work in is smaller than they think,” Sean told us. He added that even if you’re leaving the company against your will, it’s imperative to keep cool. “Whether you can control the situation or not, you can control your own behavior and your response. It’s critical if you’re switching a job or career that you conduct yourself in the way that reflects how you want people to talk about you. Wherever you go, your reputation follows you.”

Be A Professional

Sean has worked as both an employee and a boss. While he was running a private communications firm 20 years ago, one of his employees gave notice. Only days later, Sean’s business faced an emergency. “We needed help over the weekend,” Sean remembered. “We called the person who was leaving, and they came in. They did the work like they were going to spend the rest of their career with us. To this day I would give that person the highest reference because of the character they showed.”  

Sadly, this means no two-hour lunch breaks during your last two weeks. “It always gets back around when people badmouth the organization, or make other people unproductive, or stop working,” Sean said. “But when a person still acts like the job is important and they have responsibilities, it makes a huge difference. Don’t forget that sometimes people have opportunities to come back to the same organization. That won’t happen if they left in a way that showed poor character.”

Keep Cool

Not all employers will receive your resignation graciously. If bosses respond with anger or resentment, it’s time to get Zen. “Any time someone is angry toward you, compassion and kindness are your best responses,” Sean said, adding that it’s helpful to remember that not every argument has to be a winner-take-all battle of wills. “We live in a world where people think that just because you can communicate in a matter of seconds that you should, and that’s not true. You don’t have to engage in every situation that people want to engage you in. You can always say, ‘I understand how you feel and I’m happy to talk about it with you at another time, but I think right now we both need a break.’”

If instead of leaving a job, you’re let go, remembering the big picture will help you stay serene. “You need to have a specific plan for your job and your career and how you’re going to do it,” Sean explained. “That way, you have something to go back to in specific situations to remind yourself, ‘This is what I’m trying to accomplish. Does my reaction to this situation help or hurt?’”

Sweat the Small Stuff

On a more straightforward note, Sean recommends carefully reviewing your employment agreement before giving notice. “As you’re preparing to leave, review your obligations as an employee. What is your agreement to them? How much notice do you need to give? What are your responsibilities around confidentiality, etcetera? Is there a process in place in terms of each party’s responsibility in a situation where there’s a separation?” After getting your ducks in a row, you can fly the coop with confidence.

Sean’s advice wouldn’t make for compelling cinema. There are none of the power moves from “American Beauty,” for instance, but it’s helpful to remember that Kevin Spacey’s character went on to spend the home stretch of his career flipping burgers, smoking weed on a daily basis, and ultimately getting himself shot. It was a rollicking good time, of course, but for those seeking a steadier, more serene version of success, calm and integrity are key.

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