How to leave your present job with grace

Professional behavior in today's tough job market can pay dividends. Photo: public domain

WASHINGTON, June 17, 2013 – More than ever, the job you have will not be a lifetime career. In fact, the average worker stays at his or her position for only 4.4 years, and for the millennial generation, job-hopping is an even more frequent endeavor. This is, of course, primarily because we are in the midst of a prolonged economic slump.

The national underemployment rate, defined as an inadequate employment situation, is 13.8%. That shockingly high number is the result of a hostile market for job seekers, and it is particularly more frightening because this statistic does not include people who are overqualified for their jobs, like an electrical engineer working as a bartender. There are legions of workers who are understandably anxious to find a more satisfying career and quit their current job as soon as possible. 

Everyone can empathize with that feeling of impatience. Who wouldn’t want to jump ship as soon as possible to join a company offering better pay along or a more intellectually satisfying position? For all of my readers embarking on the next phase of their careers, I advise a modicum of patience. A moment of reflection just might become an extraordinarily valuable investment for your career. 

In a difficult market, it behooves job seekers to secure every advantage possible. In an increasingly inter-connected world, burning bridges is perilously dangerous behavior. One bad reference (or a lack of reference) could be the difference between an extraordinary career and a spot in the unemployment line. 

So what can you do to prevent bad blood between you and your current employer? How can you leave a lasting and positive impression on your employer and colleagues even as you depart the company? 

The answer to these questions is simple to say but difficult to do: you should give your employer appropriate notice, work hard until your very last hour and, above all, project a positive attitude about your place of employment even after you have left for greener pastures. 

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Reflect upon your position and value to your current employer. Two weeks’ notice may indeed be all you are contractually required to provide, but it may not be sufficient time to secure your desired legacy. Before jetting off, consider how your departure will affect your current company. If there are projects that you are working on that have loose ends, you should make every effort to tie them up and complete the outstanding items on your desk. If there is no replacement in your organization with the training and experience to perform the vast majority of your tasks, you may want to alert your organization that they should begin recruiting an outside replacement. 

If you work in a relatively replaceable position in a very large corporation, advance notice may not be necessary. However, if your job is central to the core of your business, as might be the case—for example, if you currently serve as a senior executive at a small company—providing advance notice of your intended departure is essential. 

Another possibility complicating your corporate exit might be your longevity at a company and the legacy knowledge you’ve likely acquired. If you have been with a firm for an extraordinarily long period of time and built substantial relationships with your colleagues and organizational superiors, you should strongly consider providing an appropriate amount of advance notice. 

Of course, extending your notice from two weeks to two months or even six months may be problematic.  It is often impossible to have your future employer agree to stay your starting date. It may be that your relationship with management is such that you have a reasonable fear of being fired as soon as you hand in your notice. In that case, it would be best to do precisely what you are contractually obligated to do and nothing more. Use your best judgment. 

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Although appropriate notice is vital to leaving a positive legacy, your continued best effort until the very last day is imperative because of a psychological phenomenon known as the “last impression bias.” If, for instance, you had been a substantial and valuable contributor to your company for ten years and only in the last weeks did your performance and attitude grow sour, the memory of your time at the company and the excellence of your work record will likely be clouded by your colleagues’ last impressions of you. As a result, until your very last day on the job you must display the same excellent work ethic that you had displayed during the entirety of your time at the company. 

Do not fall in the same trap as so many others before you: do not grow lax during your final weeks. Be sure to show up for every meeting on time and accomplish your work with gusto and pride. 

Finally, although you may be tempted to, do not disparage or malign your employer or colleagues. Certainly, and this cannot be stressed strongly enough, do not say anything negative about your place of work or your colleagues through social media. The world is smaller than you think, and the Internet remembers what you say forever. 

Be positive and good-natured until you walk out the door for the final time: there is no long-term benefit to denigrating the people with whom you have worked. If you have had poor experiences at a given company, absorb the lessons you have learned from them and move forward.            

Even if you already have your next job lined up, a sterling recommendation from your current boss may be valuable when the time comes to land future jobs. 

One quick additional piece of advice: check in with your past employers from time to time to see if they are still willing to give you a good recommendation.  If not, it is better to remove their name as a reference.  

A final note: You never know with whom you will be working in the future. Way down your career path, you may find yourself working once again under or alongside a person with whom you have worked in the past.  Industries can be surprisingly small communities, so keep every connection and bridge intact. Maintaining your past relationships just might be the key to your future success.


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Cassi Fields

Dr. Cassi Fields has provided expert opinion on career and workplace issues for nationally recognized media outlets including Forbes, TheStreet TV,, FOX News Live, US News & World Report,, WUSA9, News Channel 8,, and more. Dr. Fields, who received her Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from George Washington University, lives in Virginia with her husband and two children.

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