Allison M. Vaillancourt

Vice President, Business Affairs & Human Resources and Professor Practice, School of Government & Public Policy at The University of Arizona

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On Leaving: Exiting on Good Terms

Full bonvoyage

Image: "Bon Voyage by Western Union" (telegram to Mr. & Mrs. Prescott Stoughton from "Mae and Walter") - via Seaport Museum Archives

So you're ready to go. You've accepted a new job with people who seem to think you’re amazing and you’re eager to make a fresh start. First, however, you have to share the big news with people in your current institution, and that prospect has you feeling a little nervous.

There's a lot you have to say and you're wondering how to say it. You feel annoyed that people assumed you'd be around forever and never gave you the attention they offered to more obvious "flight risks." You offered to take on more responsibilities to ward off professional boredom, but you could never garner any interest in granting you a larger or more diverse portfolio. Most troubling, your bosses consistently rewarded the self-promoters, while ignoring solid citizens (such as yourself) who quietly delivered results without a lot of fanfare.

With a job offer in hand, this feels like a good time to detail the years of disappointment that finally prompted you to consider a new opportunity.

But is it? As you write your letter of resignation and think about what you’re going to say in passing conversations about your pending departure, should you be completely honest? Or should you bury your bitterness in an effort to be professional and polite?

Here's a tip: Take your laptop or a pad of paper to your favorite coffee shop and write the resignation letter that you would love to send. Outline the various injustices you endured and make a detailed list of improvements that should be implemented to ensure that you are the last person to feel mistreated. Be as detailed as possible as you describe the slights you experienced and how they made you feel. Mention the first time you thought about leaving and explain why you regret delaying your departure. Also, craft a second response — briefer, but similarly themed — that you can offer verbally or in writing when people express surprise about your departure.

Review both drafts, correct punctuation and grammar, and then set them aside to read the next day. When tomorrow comes, read them again, make additional edits, and then place both your letter of resignation and your explanation paragraph in a sealed envelope.

Here's the important part: Tuck the envelope into a drawer at home. Under no circumstances should you share your "venting" documents with anyone at work. Now go and draft something vague and professionally appropriate that you can actually hand out or say in public.

The neutral zone between your old life and your new one can be a treacherous space. When you've got a firm offer to move on, you may feel emboldened to "speak truth to power" and let those who let you down know that actions have consequences. You may also be tempted to punish your former colleagues, perhaps leaving loose ends that will make life especially hard for them after you are gone.

Leaving well is a far better option. Here are some tips for how to go out on a high note.

  • Before you deliver any news to anyone, make sure your affairs are in order. Make copies of anything you might need (to the degree that is allowable). Make sure you no longer need your soon-to-be-old work email address, and that your Linkedin and iPhone accounts and various subscriptions are linked to your personal email account. Remove anything from your workspace that would cause discomfort or embarrassment were it to be discovered by others.
  • Next, offer your resignation in person. At the end of the conversation provide a letter of resignation in writing. Give as much notice as possible, but be open to the possibility that you may be asked to leave sooner than you expected.
  • When asked why you are leaving, speak of what drew you to the new opportunity rather than what prompted you to start looking in the first place.
  • Finish strong. Wrap up projects, complete assignments, and honor your commitments. If you slack off toward the end, that is how you will be remembered.
  • Send thank-you notes to everyone who supported you so they will think well of you after you have gone.
  • Leave your affairs in good order. Leave a project list. Make sure your paper and electronic files are accessible and well organized; provide a roadmap so that your content can be accessed later. Delete or throw away content that you probably should have tossed or deleted years ago.
  • Clean up your workspace and leave your key and ID card in an obvious space so a departmental staff member doesn't have to chase you down or sift through your books and documents.
  • Offer to be a resource as questions arise in the future and honor your word when a former colleague calls you.
  • While it may be tempting to leave overly ripe fruit in a desk drawer for others to find weeks after you have gone, resist the urge.
  • Once you are gone, be gone. Don't check in. Don't try to stay up-to-date on internal workings. Don't offer advice. Don't comment on your successor’s performance. Yes, you have important insights to share, but the time for sharing is now over.

In your excitement — or relief — about leaving, it may not occur to you that you might want to return one day. By leaving responsibly and quietly, a return invitation might actually be possible, should you want it down the road.

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