Making a Graceful Exit

We’ve been spending time discussing how to terminate an employee.  But what if you’re the employee and you’ve decided to leave your current employer for another opportunity?

As with terminations, a guiding principle for resigning is to be sensitive to the feelings of the people who will receive the news. When your manager sees you coming down the hall with a white envelope in your hand, he or she will be wondering what’s going on.  “Will I be losing a trusted and valuable employee?”

Don’t Burn Bridges

Leaving on your own terms

Your letter of resignation doesn’t have to be long. Describe when you plan to start your new job and when you’d like to be able to leave your current employer.
You can remark on how much you’ve enjoyed working for the current employer and offer to help on the transition.

You don’t have to describe your reasons for leaving. It’s usually sufficient to say your move is driven by a need or desire to advance your skills and career.

The letter of resignation should be addressed to your immediate supervisor and you should present it in person so he or she has an opportunity to respond or ask questions. Going this route ensures your boss doesn’t hear about your resignation from the office grapevine and shows respect for his/her authority.

Just as in terminating an employee, do NOT submit your resignation by email or voicemail – either of which shows little respect for your supervisor.

Make it Constructive

Offer to participate in an exit interview.

This is an opportunity to share with your organization and describe issues that need to be addressed and factors that led you to seek employment elsewhere, but also the things you liked about the company and its people.

You should not consider the exit interview to be an opportunity to air resentments, dump on fellow employees or your supervisor. Be careful what you say: things could come back to haunt you later – such as when a future employer checks for references.

When you submit your letter of resignation, be sure to allow at least two weeks’ notice to your employer. It shows some sensitivity to the company’s needs to find a replacement for you and demonstrates professionalism and commitment to the job. Check your employment agreement as well: it may be possible – especially for very senior positions – that you might be required to provide considerably more than just two weeks.

Use those two weeks to work out a transition plan and make yourself available. It’s possible your employer may wish to have you leave immediately, but in many cases you can stay on to finish projects and say your goodbyes to colleagues.

Have regular conversations with your supervisor. Since finding a replacement for you will be top of mind, show you’ve given some thought to succession planning and suggest employees who could potentially fill your role.

If you are allowed to stay, this is a sign of the employer’s trust in you. Suggest having someone accompany you during this process to help ensure you are acting in the best interests of the company and not taking company property with you. They may not require this, but it shows your acknowledgement of the company’s trust in you. While you’re in this position, remember you’re still an employee of the company you’re leaving, so adhere to company protocol at all times.

Clean Up Loose Ends

I recall starting with one company and, on my first day, I walked into a bare bones office: a desk, chair, credenza and bookcase, but nothing else. There were no files left by my predecessor in any of the drawers. No business cards of key contacts. Nothing to bring me up to speed on projects that were underway.

My biggest challenge was trying to figure out who our customers were, what they bought from us and what opportunities there might be on the horizon. Fortunately, my teammates were extremely helpful and supportive.

If this is how you’d like to start into a new position, then read no further.

Very early in my career, I was trained in how to prepare turnover documents so a successor could quickly get up to speed.

The turnover document should summarize existing projects, primary contacts (internal and external) associated with the project, status of the projected, next steps and timing. These should be prioritized into something like “Urgent”, “Needed” or “Long Term”. So your successor can determine where the most attention is required. A business plan, marketing plan or budget document would also be very helpful in orienting a successor.

Another helpful way to hand off to a successor is to describe where you see your department or business progressing over the next 1 – 3 years. This can help crystallize a vision into an actionable form or just give your successor some good ideas to consider as he/she develops his/her own plan.

Ensure your files are up to date and orderly to make it easier for someone to locate important information. If you use a filing system, include a copy of it in your handover package.

The hardest thing to replace in organizations these days is intellectual capital. What you know about your business, your industry and how to succeed can walk out the door with you when you leave.

Many companies try to retain intellectual capital in repositories such as CRM systems, data warehouses and so on. If you are especially proficient in using certain tools or have developed some special tools of your own, consider creating a detailed user manual for future users. Both ERPs and CRMs are customized to the point they’re no longer out-of-the-box solutions that the supplier can support because the customizations reflect your company’s unique processes.


When you are leaving by resigning, you are in a much better position to get a written letter of reference that can help you down the road.

Usually, you’ll be leaving on much better terms with your employer than if you were terminated and this positive feeling can be leveraged into a letter of reference that has some depth to it (as opposed to J Smith worked for this company in X capacity from Date A to Date B). Your letter of reference should be on company letterhead and dated.

There are two ways this can be done. One is to get the letter of reference before you leave. When you’re parting on amicable terms, this is the best way to obtain it. The other is to wait until after you’ve left, so your supervisor has time to process your resignation and can write objectively and without emotion.

Desired Outcome

The whole point is that, after you’ve left, all your co-workers will be thinking “What a wonderful and professional person [Jack/Jill] was to work with!”