Leave Your Job on Good Terms

By Howard Seidel

Successful executives usually accept and leave jobs on their own terms. Being terminated from a position is often a new experience for them—and almost always difficult. But landing the next big job may depend on how you leave the last one. Despite whatever pain and anger accompanies being forced out of a job, it’s critical to consider the following pointers as you move on:  

Leave with grace.

Nothing destroys a legacy faster than leaving an organization in a way that others might interpret as a lack of class. Avoid doing anything that diminishes your professionalism, such as displaying open hostility toward your former company, bad-mouthing fellow executives, and failing to return appropriate company documents and property.

If anyone offers to hold a party for you at the company, accept graciously—not just for yourself, but also for the people who , want to say goodbye. Leaving with grace shows that you are proud of your accomplishments and that you are walking with your head held high through the front door—not slinking out the back. It also signals that you are open to people approaching you to offer help and support. 

Negotiate your separation wisely.

Finalizing a separation agreement need not be contentious, but it should be done thoughtfully. Understand what the company is offering you as severance and think through whether you believe this is appropriate in the context of your employment agreement, the circumstances connected to your departure or the market benchmarks in your industry.

Understand the meaning of any noncompetes, especially if such an agreement is broader than any contained in your original employment contract. Consulting with an experienced employment attorney familiar with your industry can be worth the cost. However, getting lawyers negotiating directly too early in the process can ratchet up the conflict. It is typically more effective to use an attorney’s advice as background information to work out a fair separation on your own. 

Forge a strong departure message.

The first question you will get from recruiters and potential employers is, “Why did you leave?” Have a good answer ready. The best answers are those that concisely, positively, nondefensively and credibly tell your departure story in a way that best protects your competence and integrity.

If your departure can be tied to broader executive-level changes at your former organization, make that clear. If your departure was an isolated event at the company, craft an explanation that focuses on culture, philosophy or fit. Your job is to minimize the salience of this departure, given the larger picture of your overall career.

Remember, potential employers and recruiters understand that not all arrangements work out at senior levels. They just want to ensure that what didn’t work at the last company doesn’t create risk for them in the next. 

Align your references.

Your public statement as to why you left your last firm must be consistent with what your references tell a potential employer. That doesn’t mean that everyone has to tell your exact story; they just can’t tell the potential employer something that’s odds with your story.

For example, references might not be expected to know why you left, and they could be a little harsher than you can afford to be in discussing your former employer. But they can’t say you were terminated if you’re saying that it was your choice to leave. You need to know how a reference will answer this question.

Also, your references need to know what you are telling the potential employer. If there’s a conflict, find it out early and work it out before it becomes a costly embarrassment. 

Try to repair relationships.

So the CEO fired you and you think it was unfair, and you want nothing to do with that person ever again. While that reaction is understandable, it is in your best interests to do what you can to repair that relationship. First, it is always valuable to have your most recent manager on your reference list, if possible; rebuilding the relationship provides you a chance to do that.

Even if that isn’t going to happen—or in the event you don’t trust the person enough to include him or her on your reference list—repairing the relationship with a former boss or colleague increases the chances that the person won’t torpedo your opportunity at a new organization if he or she is called blindly by a potential employer. And blind references are often used, particularly at executive levels.

Exiting an organization on someone else’s terms is rarely easy. But doing so in the right way can improve your chances of successfully reaching your next opportunity.

Howard Seidel, Ed.D., J.D., is a partner with Essex Partners, a consultancy that specializes in senior executive and C-suite career transitions. www.essexpartners.com