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Going out on the right note

Remember the adage, "Quitters never win and winners never quit?"

Forget it.

To move up the ladder of success in today's more mobile marketplace, you're probably going to need to quit your job and move on several times during your career.

"The typical career path is changing," says Bruce Tulgan, Gen X/Y consultant and co-author of "Managing the Generation Mix." "In the past, people were likely to have fewer jobs over the course of their careers than they will today. As a result, there is less stigma surrounding quitting than there was in the past.

"Prospective employers would have been very intent on knowing why you quit a job in the past, whereas today, because it's more common, you may have less explaining to do. It's much less likely today to be an indication of failure."

The dynamics of a more fluid workforce have placed renewed emphasis on the delicate art of quitting correctly.

"One of the most important assets you can have, especially in a more fluid career, is good relationships with decision makers. Your vendors, colleagues, subordinates or bosses at one job might be in different roles to you throughout your career," Tulgan says.

"You may well find yourself crossing paths with these folks in the future, whether you want to or not. Somebody who is your boss today might be your vendor or your customer tomorrow, or your subordinate today might one day be your boss."

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Why employees bail
Workers move on for any number of reasons. While better pay is the prime motivator, Tulgan says the next five job-change motives are:

  • To work a different schedule

  • To work with different people (bosses, co-workers, subordinates, vendors, customers)

  • To perform different tasks or have more job responsibility or control

  • To acquire additional knowledge or improve skills

  • To relocate

Rosner cites another reason employees reluctantly move on: an employer acts in an unethical manner. Leaving on good terms under these circumstances can take considerable diplomacy.

"If your boss is doing something illegal, you might feel the need to say something for the sake of the people who remain or even for the sake of the company," he says. "Well, you can't fault somebody for wanting to improve a situation, but it's got to be done really carefully."

Quitting correctly
Whatever your reason, how you quit can be just as important as why.

"A very important asset is your reputation," Tulgan says. "People talk, whether explicitly in a job reference or less formally. To be on good terms with people is valuable because they are likely to strengthen your reputation rather than diminish it."

Bob Rosner, the "retention evangelist" behind the WorkingWounded Web site and author of "The Boss's Survival Guide," agrees that the fastest way to derail a promising career is to tell your boss to take this job and shove it.

"I'm a big believer that you've got to have a darn good reason to burn a bridge," Rosner says. "If I had a full bank account and was deciding to retire, even if I wanted to blow off that last employer, I still wouldn't do it.

"Go for a run or play a physical game of basketball, anything to get the stress off, and then think long and hard about the ramifications of leaving on bad terms. Don't limit your possibilities down the pike."

Five steps out the door
Once you decide to leave a job, do it properly. The art of a perfect exit requires just as much planning and attention to detail as landing the perfect job. Here are five steps to a graceful departure:

1. Make a plan. Develop a detailed exit strategy. Include a timeline and list the key relationships you want to protect. "The best strategy is to make a list of all those people, have a conversation with each of them if you can, ask them what they need from you and try to deliver it," says Tulgan.

2. Develop a brief explanation. Everyone will want to know why you're leaving and where you're going. Settle on a brief and simple explanation that is upbeat and doesn't point fingers. Focus on the positive: You have a great opportunity available to you to learn something new, advance your career or grow in some way. One good technique is to pretend you're explaining why you left to your next employer; they are not only bound to ask, but may well corroborate your reply with your former boss. For that reason alone, honesty is the best policy -- so long as you stop short of being brutally frank.

3. Give plenty of notice. Two weeks is standard practice and the professional minimum.

4. Work hard to complete your work. "That's part of fulfilling your obligations," says Tulgan. "People who leave organizations unsuccessfully often hang around for two weeks and don't have a lot to do. People who leave organizations on very good terms often are frantically busy in their last two weeks because they are trying to fulfill their various obligations."

5. Keep in touch. Give your new contact information to all your key relationships and gather their contact information. It's a nice touch to send your former employer a thank-you note focusing on the positive aspects of your work there. Once you've departed, it's a good idea to stay in touch and keep everyone apprised of your continued success and changing contact information. After all, it's a small working world out there.

Mastering the fine art of departure can help you convert hard knocks into building blocks for success.

"There are some people who have one experience after another and these experiences don't build on each other," says Tulgan. "The most successful people are those who use each experience as a building block to the next. You want to be able to use all those building blocks in your next experience for continuing growth and development. That means you don't want to leave a disaster in your wake."

Jay MacDonald is a contributing editor based in Florida.

-- Updated: Dec. 17, 2004

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