How to Quit Your Job The Right Way

Given signs that the IT job market is finally thawing, IT professionals are actively searching for better career opportunities. Who can blame them? After two years of withering under budget cuts that left people more overworked and underpaid than ever, IT professionals at all levels are ready to jet. Many of you can't wait to tell your employers, "I quit!"

As you prepare to tender your resignation, you may be tempted to go down in a blaze of glory, à la former Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater. But quitting your job in a flamboyant fashion is a strategic career mistake.

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First of all, you'll never be able to rely on that employer for a reference, says Steven Miranda, chief global HR and content integration officer for the Society for Human Resource Management. Even if you don't proffer your former employer's name when a prospective employer asks you for references, he adds, the hiring manager might still call your old boss.

What's more, remember that the world is small. In a future role, you may end up working with or for that boss or those colleagues whom you roasted on your way out. "As I think about my 35 years of working, it's constantly amazing to me how many times I encounter a former colleague, boss or subordinate in a new organization who has some level of influence, impact or persuasion upon a project or initiative that I'm working on," says Miranda.

If you leave on bad terms, you'll lack political capital if you need those coworkers in the future.

Most importantly, when you leave a job anything less than graciously, you run the risk of ruining your reputation. "Your resignation is the last official act you'll do, and it's the way you'll be talked about and remembered for a while," says Jacques Aboaf, vice president of strategic development for job search website Vault.com. "It's an opportunity for you to define how you want to be remembered. Leaving on bad terms can negate years' worth of good will [that you've built]."

You may be surprised to learn how easy it is to bruise your personal brand on your way out the door. Even without blatantly burning your bridges, your departure can still inspire ambivalent feelings about you in your boss and coworkers. All it takes is leaving your workspace a mess or leaving your colleagues in the lurch. To make sure you end your job on a high note, consider this advice from career and HR experts on four key matters: holding the "I quit" conversation with your boss, determining how much notice to give, writing your resignation letter and leaving a positive last impression with colleagues.

How to Tell Your Boss, "I Quit!"

Whether you're leaving a good job or a bad one, telling your boss "sayonara" can be awkward. After all, your leaving will most likely create some hardship for him or her (your boss will have to start the time-consuming process of finding your replacement) and remaining staffers (who will have to pick up your work in the interim). Your boss may also take the news personally, as an indictment of his or her management style.

No matter how uncomfortable you may be, experts agree you should deliver the news verbally--preferably in person--rather than e-mailing a resignation letter. It's a matter of courtesy and respect, says Aboaf.

If you know your manager is going to be out of the office when you plan to give your notice, give your notice early, or wait until after the boss returns, adds Aboaf. If you can't wait for your supervisor's return, Miranda says to make every effort to reach your manager by phone rather than e-mailing.

So what exactly do you tell your boss? Miranda recommends the following script:

I have really enjoyed my time here at XYZ company. I've learned a lot and developed a lot of new skills. It's been a tremendous experience for me. I've had a great opportunity presented to me that will allow me to take these skills to the next level, and I've decided to take this opportunity. I wanted to chat with you about the best way for us to handle my transition.

If you don't have anything positive to say about your job, you can be honest about the challenges you've faced without being indelicate, says Howard Seidel, a partner with Boston, Mass.-based career management and outplacement firm Essex Partners. For example, you could say, "I'm not really a fit here, and I've decided to move elsewhere."

A manager who genuinely cares why you're leaving may ask about your decision-making, warns Miranda. Give your supervisor the work equivalent of, 'This isn't about you; it's about me,' such as, "My decision is not a reflection of your management or the work environment. It's just that this other opportunity is a better match for my skills/career goals/will allow me to work with new technologies/in a new industry," he says.

Kathy Simmons, CEO of Netshare Inc., a web-based networking community for executives, notes that announcing your resignation will be easier if you've had conversations with your boss about your career goals. Then, your decision to part ways may come as less of a shock, and your boss may not take your resignation as personally, she says.

"If you'd been telling your boss that you wanted more responsibility and more experience," Simmons adds, "you can say to your boss, 'I loved working here but this job will give me the opportunity to get X. As you know, I've been anxious to work on different types of assignments.'"

Your manager might ask you about the specifics of your new job (your title, job description and salary) because she wants to retain you, says Aboaf. So know what you want to do in the event your boss presents you with a counter-offer.

Simmons warns professionals against getting talked into staying. "That can backfire more often than not," she says. "I have seen that over and over: The boss makes you a counter-offer, but they're thinking, 'I can't trust this person to stick with me so I better start looking for a replacement.' They keep you there to ease the transition, then the employee is terminated shortly thereafter. "

You may not want to tell your boss anything about your new role, and that's okay, say the experts. In that case, you can tell your boss, "I'd be happy to give you that information but I'd rather land first," or "I'd like to wait until the company publicly announces my hire before I say anything about my new role," says Seidel.

Finally, no matter how delicately you phrase your resignation, there's always a chance that your manager may terminate your employment on the spot. Some managers respond that way out of anger. Others tell you to pack up your personal effects because your presence inside the company poses security or intellectual property risks, says Seidel, especially if they know you're going to work for a competitor.

To protect yourself in the event your boss reacts to your resignation this way, remove all personal information from your computer and work e-mail before speaking with your boss, says Simmons.

How Much Notice Should You Give?

The amount of notice you give is driven in large part by your rank in the company, says Miranda. For staff-level positions, two weeks' notice is customary. Executives typically need to give more notice, either because their employment agreements specifically state as much and/or because their work can't be tied up as neatly in two weeks, adds Miranda.

Another factor influencing the amount of notice you give is the status of your work. Take stock of your responsibilities before informing your boss of your plans to leave so you can get an idea of the amount of time you'll need to complete any outstanding work or to get it ship-shape enough to seamlessly transition to others on staff. Bring this list of projects and responsibilities when you meet with your boss to give her your notice, says Aboaf.

"The relationships you formed with your co-workers will be affected by your projects, so don't leave them in the lurch," cautions Aboaf.

Moving to a new job also plays a role in your notice. Your new employer may need you to start as soon as possible, but most will understand your need to give your current employer the standard two weeks' notice, says Simmons. Make sure you wrap up your work or get it in shape to transition during your last two weeks on the job.

If you're not under pressure to leave your job, Seidel says you might want to tell your boss that you'll work with her on an end-date that works for both of you. Most managers appreciate getting more than two weeks' notice from departing employees.

How to Write a Resignation Letter

Career experts agree that you should give your notice in person before handing a formal resignation letter to your boss. That said, you can prepare your resignation letter in advance of that conversation, or you can write it after you've talked with your boss.

Your resignation letter should be brief. All it needs to state is your intention to leave the company and your last day on the job. You can be cordial, but you don't want to be too laudatory of your employer. Miranda suggests the following boilerplate resignation letter text:

This is to confirm the conversation we had today. I will be resigning my position effective X date. I appreciate the time I had in this department. I'll always value my experience at this company.

The reason you don't want to overly praise your employer in your resignation letter, says Aboaf, is because you never know how your manager may treat you upon hearing your plans to leave.

"Some companies are very harsh when you tell them you're leaving," he says. "They lock down your computer and don't let you go back to your desk. You'll feel worse if you said in your resignation letter how much you loved the company, then you get treated this way."

Just as you don't want your resignation letter to be too praiseworthy, you don't want it to be acrimonious, either.

"Even if you were miserable, your resignation letter is no place to put that because it becomes part of your personnel record," says Simmons. "It can affect how references might happen in the future."

How to Leave on a High Note

In a particularly memorable episode of Seinfeld, George becomes obsessed with leaving his job at Kruger Industrial Smoothing "on a high note." Your goal upon quitting your job should be to do the same: to make your employer wish you weren't leaving. (George was so good at this that his boss ended up firing everyone on his team and keeping George.) "Make your departure feel as if an invaluable piece of the organization was leaving," says Miranda. "You want people to say, 'We lost a good person when you walked out the door.'"

To that end, be professional and cordial during your last weeks on the job. Help your boss, co-workers and direct reports with the transition by training new or existing employees and by scrupulously documenting your work. Don't gloat about your new job, don't solicit colleagues to work for you after you leave (especially if you've signed a non-solicitation agreement with the employer you're leaving) and don't trash talk your employer or anyone in the company--while you're there or once you're gone. After all, says Aboaf, you're making your opinion known by voting with your feet.

Nor should you give the impression that you're counting down the hours until your last day. Your attitude should communicate that even though you're leaving for a new opportunity, the company is still a great place to work, says Seidel. In fact, he adds, that's a nice sentiment to convey in a final, 'thanks for the memories' type e-mail to your coworkers.

Lastly, clean out your workspace. "Don't leave it a mess with cold medication, condiment packages, cough drops, napkins and menus because that desk will be a reminder of you to your co-workers," says Aboaf.

"If you walk out with your head held high, paper work in order and your desk clean, it's much harder for the people you left behind to disrespect or speak ill of you," adds Aboaf. "You have your own dignity and self-respect to think about."

Meridith Levinson covers Careers, Project Management and Outsourcing for CIO.com. Follow Meridith on Twitter @meridith. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Meridith at mlevinson@cio.com.

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This story, "How to Quit Your Job The Right Way" was originally published by CIO.

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