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How to Leave a Job Gracefully and Make a Good Last Impression

By Adelle Waldman

I quit.

It's a phrase that takes a lot of courage to say, especially when it's being directed at an employer. Utter it at the wrong time or in the wrong manner, and the results could be damaging to your career.

For Jennifer, an attorney in New York, it was a particularly gut-wrenching experience. The twentysomething had been looking for a new job for several months when she got an offer from one of the law firms where she had interviewed. The job wasn't her first choice among those she applied for, but it did offer more money than her current position.

She didn't know what to do: Take the job that was being offered or hold off for one of the ones she wanted more? It wouldn't be smart to turn down a sure thing, she figured, so she decided to quit. "I wanted to do the right thing and give them a full two weeks' notice."

Jennifer, who asked that her last name not be used for this column, told her boss that she got a better offer elsewhere and respectfully quit. Later that night, she regretted the move. She felt that she should have held out for a job she wanted more, and didn't want to take the new position in the interim. "I didn't sleep at all" that night, she says. The next day, she rescinded her notice.

Jennifer's boss was forgiving, and allowed her to keep her position. A month later, however, she was offered a job she really wanted at a different firm, and left, for good.

Still, Jennifer's transition was hardly smooth, and it probably wasn't the ideal way the situation could have been handled.

"Once you give notice, you've kind of crossed an imaginary line -- a point of no return," says Marc Karasu, a spokesman for Yahoo HotJobs. Jennifer could have tried to buy more time from the firm who made her the offer before she said yes, he says. In the meantime, she might have been able to tease an offer from one of the other firms she was interested in.

Mastering the ins and outs of moving from job to job is an important skill, particularly for young people, since we are likely to move around a lot. It's more than just being professional, it's about shoring your future career moves, and your finances. The average person will have 9.2 jobs between the ages of 18 and 34, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, a survey from the Society of Human Resource Management last November found that 75% of employees are actively or passively looking for work, now that the economy is getting stronger.

How can you make a move as pain-free as possible?

First, schedule a private moment with your boss to break the news -- and do it tactfully, says Mr. Karasu. Instead of screaming, "I quit," Mr. Karasu suggests saying something about how fortunate you have been and how grateful you are for all the opportunities you have been given, but that you have an offer that you felt you couldn't refuse. In other words, don't be tempted to use leaving as an opportunity to blow off steam.

"You never know when your boss will be a good reference," says Deborah Keary, a director at the Society for Human Resource Management. "It's so dumb to make everyone angry before you go."

Paul Kitzrow made an effort to leave his job with some tact. "It was very hard to bite my tongue toward the end," says Mr. Kitzrow, a 23-year-old who recently left a corporate job to work with his uncle on a new business in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Mr. Kitzrow was tempted to offer "constructive criticism" about everything he disliked in his old job, but he had a feeling that it wouldn't go over well. Plus, he had taken some extra vacation time before giving notice, and his boss could have docked his pay for the days he took off but didn't.

In the end, however, he didn't burn any bridges, and his boss offered to write him a letter of reference for future career moves.

Don't burn bridges with co-workers, either. Remember that anyone you've worked with is a potential reference, career experts say.

Another way to make your transition as smooth as possible is to give more than two weeks' notice, says Ms. Keary. She says most employers won't be able to find and hire a replacement in two weeks, so if you can give them extra time -- three weeks or a month -- to get started, they will usually be appreciative.

There's a caveat, though. Some employers get very upset when someone quits and may want the worker out immediately, she says. So before you tell your boss, you might want to reflect on how your boss has responded in the past when employees gave notice. Ms. Keary also suggests that, just in case, you download all the personal documents on your computer to a disk before you go in to see your boss. That way, if he or she ignominiously boots you out the door, you already have those things in your possession.

Presuming your boss doesn't flip out, Mr. Karasu suggests you do as much as you can to help your boss hire your replacement, which might include writing a job ad or even gathering and vetting resumes from possible candidates.

Another thing to do is to write instructions about how to do your job for your replacement and even to offer to make yourself available to answer any questions for a week or two after you leave, Mr. Karasu says. "If you've done all that, that's about all anyone can expect," he says.

Except maybe a hand-written thank you note. That's a little touch that Lorie Lebert, a career coach in Novi, Mich., recommends. The note should "thank them for understanding your position and for giving you the opportunity to begin with," she says. "A really nice thank you note goes a long way."

Of course, you should also resist the temptation to start completely slacking off after you've given notice, she says. "Work as hard as you possibly can," Ms. Lebert says. "People are watching you."

That's what Myles Perkins is trying to do, but it's hard. The 29-year-old Washington, D.C., resident works in commercial real-estate finance -- at least for now. He is attending business school next year and will take the summer off, leaving his current position in June.

In the meantime, he says he feels like a "dead man walking." "I've been passed over for a couple of projects because everyone knows I'm leaving and they don't want me to start something," he says.

Mr. Perkins feels like he's twiddling his thumbs a bit, without enough work to keep him busy throughout the day, but still wants to do his best. "My boss has been really good to me, and I don't want to appear to be a total slacker," he says.

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Article from Today – November 2005