How To Leave On A High Note

how to walk out of your job on a high note

So you’ve aced your interview, negotiated your salary and accepted a shiny new job. Congratulations! After you hand in your resignation, you have one foot out the door, pointed towards bigger and better things.  

While you serve out your notice period, it can be tempting to switch to autopilot, chuck a few well-timed sickies, or even go down in a blaze of glory, à la former flight attendant Steven Slater (feel free to Google that. I’ll wait).

But remaining gracious, competent and unflappably positive in your last weeks of employment – no matter the circumstances of your departure – will ensure that you’re remembered as the consummate professional that you are.

You might think that since you’ve already done the hard yards during your tenure, you’re finally off the hook and can coast through your final few weeks of employment.

Actually, not so much.

Due to something called the “peak-end bias”, we tend not to remember experiences holistically; rather focusing on their peaks and the ending. So by putting in the hard work during your last few weeks, you’re far more likely to be remembered for your positive contributions. Although it’s naïve to think that you’re irreplaceable, in an ideal world you’d want your employer to be sorry that they couldn’t keep you, acknowledge your contributions and admit that they’ll have big shoes to fill when you’re gone. Here’s how to do just that:

1. Get your ducks in a row

Before you hand in your well-crafted resignation letter, you should save any documents that you might need in the future, including presentations, projects or performance reviews (unless these are confidential, of course). Clean up your browser history, remove any personal files, and make a note of any login details that you will need to pass on.

2. Don’t slack off

Do your very best until the last day, so you can leave the same way you came in – on a high note. Your notice period is not the time to catch up on your online shopping – instead, focus on completing whatever projects you have on hand. Any tasks that you leave unfinished (or worse, botched) will jeopardise your chances of getting a glowing recommendation and tarnish the reputation and personal brand that you may have spent years cultivating.

3. Plan the transition

Even if you don’t have a replacement to train, prepare detailed handover instructions so that your successor has an easier time transitioning into your role. (There’s nothing that will destroy your reputation faster than a successor who complains incessantly about how you’ve left them in the lurch.) Create a quick reference guide with all your daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly tasks, and delegate any outstanding tasks with deadlines after your notice period. Share this with your manager – it will take you all of 20 minutes but they will be very grateful.

4. Don’t burn bridges

As much as you’d like to exit with a bang, it’s important to leave on good terms. This is not a good time to let loose about how much you really hate your boss, or how annoying you’ve always found those quarterly reports. Focus on tying up any loose ends to reduce the amount of follow-up required after you leave.

Also, don’t act too excited about your new job – it’s not classy. In the best-case scenario, it will make people envious (but also resentful), and in the worst-case scenario, it will sound like gloating.

5. Take the high road

Resist the urge to badmouth your boss, clients or colleagues, even if you think that sharing the truth will vindicate your departure. As soon as you resign, you may notice a weird “me vs. them” mentality developing as people start to distance themselves from you. During this time, word has a way of getting around – -- even your most trusted confidantes can quote what you told them in confidence in order to show the company where their loyaltyies lies. Feel free to air your grievances with your close friends and family – but keep it strictly profesh at work.

6. Say thank you

No matter how bad your job was, there’s always something to be grateful for (if only the fact that you now know what you don’t like or won’t stand for). Express your sincere gratitude for your experience – nothing will make you stand out more. Acknowledge any opportunities that you’ve been given to learn and grow, and express your appreciation for your boss and coworkers’ support. If you can’t think of anything positive to say, you’re better off saying ‘Thanks for the experience, but it just wasn’t a good fit’ than sounding bitter. After all, actions speak louder than words, and you’re voting with your feet.

7. Ask for feedback

It can be tough to give developmental feedback, particularly to people who don’t want to receive it (trust me; I’ve been a manager for 5 years!) When you’ve already resigned, it lowers the barrier a little bit for people who are uncomfortable with giving feedback. This is a chance to ask your manager and trusted colleagues their honest opinion about what you could have done better. If you present it as something you’re doing for your personal development, rather than an accusation, you’re more likely to get an honest answer.

8. Network within

If you don’t have most of your contacts on LinkedIn, add them now. It’s a professional and widely acceptable way of keeping in touch with people you may not connect with on a personal level, instead of saying something awkward like ‘“Let’s do lunch sometime!’” Reach out to clients and coworkers that you don’t have regular contact with and let them know you’re leaving, along with your appreciation for their support and an invitation to add you on LinkedIn. You’ve spent time building and cementing these relationships, so they should form the cornerstone of your professional network (and get you closer to that coveted 500+ connections on LinkedIn).

9. Ask for a recommendation

While everyone still remembers you and can see what a great job you’re doing even as you’re leaving, make sure that you ask for a recommendation and/or LinkedIn endorsement. It’s a good idea to email potential referees a list of bulleted accomplishments along with your start and end dates, so they remember what to focus on if they are called by a future employer. It’s also nice to get something in writing, if your referee is willing to do that for you.

10. Be gracious in your exit interview

Many companies will ask you to participate in an exit interview to understand your reasons for leaving. This is usually conducted with HR and not your direct manager, so it can be tempting to let loose and drop a few bombshells. Don’t do it!

In most cases, the information you provide will not be treated as confidential, and it could sour an otherwise positive impression. Bringing up past issues is potentially damaging and can seem immature – after all, it’s a small world and what you say can come back to bite you. Instead, focus on your personal motivations for leaving, such as career progression and opportunities for growth.

11. Leave a present

If appropriate, you might want to leave a small present for your coworkers to remember you by. The more personal, the better – for instance, if you’re known for your home-baked cookies, consider buying a cookie jar for the office (full of your cookies of course). A small present for the whole office (such as a plant) can seem like a good idea but won't have the desired effect since it isn’t particularly memorable. The best present I’ve seen was one given to the office by my predecessor: she had left her colleagues a picnic blanket to enjoy on the grassy knoll outside the office. What a great present – every time people use it, they think of her. How lovely to be thought of every time it’s a gorgeous sunny day!

12. Say goodbye

Depending on your situation, your departure could be exciting, sad or (in most cases) somewhat bittersweet. Schedule any final lunches, write personalised emails to coworkers and clients, and consider giving your boss a handwritten thank you card. Send out a final email to the office (if appropriate) expressing your appreciation for the experience you’ve had. Finally, clean out your workspace and leave with your head held high.

Leaving on a high note can be the difference between a good reference or good riddance. Make sure that you depart with dignity, professionalism and poise to leave your hard-earned reputation intact.

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