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How to Exit an Organization Gracefully and Why It Matters

Lisa Dubler

A young professional standing in front of two office buildings.

The global pandemic has transformed our world of work. Millions of highly skilled nonprofit professionals are moving forward from the organizations that they once called their professional home. For some, the decision to exit is strategic and may have been made prior to the pandemic. For others, the decision to leave may not have been their own.

Regardless, the way in which you choose to exit an organization is paramount. Here are five steps that you can take to exit an organization gracefully.

1. Ask for what you need 

The activist who inspired millions, Mahatma Gandhi, once famously said, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get it.” Before you leave an organization it is important to consider what you need and, when appropriate, how you’ll ask for it.

For example, would you like to ask for a letter of recommendation before your last day? Do you want to ask to convey to your colleagues why you are leaving the organization in your own words? If you have been offered a severance package, you may want to ask for time to consult legal counsel before signing on the dotted line. Remember, it is up to you—not your employer—to think through what you need, to be bold, and to make the ask.

2. Maintain clear lines of communication 

Maintaining clear lines of communication can make all the difference in how your colleagues and stakeholders perceive your departure. 

You may be wondering, why does it matter how my departure is perceived? If you’re strategic about career pivots, you always keep the long game in mind. If you are staying within the same sector, your departure from one organization may not be the end of your collegial relationships. If you are shifting sectors, which is the case for many talented professionals right now, you likely want the option of leveraging your current network to help you get plugged into new opportunities. 

In practice, maintaining clear lines of communication might look like putting together a transition plan that details the status of your current projects, or working with your manager to strategize how to share the news of your departure. As you and your manager come up with a plan, consider what you want and need from these wrap-up conversations. One idea is to use them as an opportunity to ask your colleagues, when appropriate, for their personal email addresses. If follow-up comes less naturally to you, proactively schedule a future (virtual) coffee check-in before you depart.

If you’ve already left your organization and are focused on maintaining relationships, try sending a simple message to former colleagues—ask them how they’re doing and don’t be bashful about sharing an update on where you are, too. 

3. Set reasonable boundaries  

Just as it can be helpful to set boundaries for yourself when starting a new job, it is equally—if not more—important to set them after you have left an organization. 

For many, a job can feel like so much more. Perhaps the organization where you work is a place where you’ve built lasting friendships. When you leave an organization, these dynamics may shift. And right now, given the global pandemic, this shift may feel even more significant. 

It is important to remember that your job is just a job, and there will be others. Set reasonable boundaries that position you to maintain your relationships, but also recognize that there will be new opportunities to become a part of a new culture when you land your next role. In practice, this might look like limiting the conversations you have with past colleagues for your first few weeks away, reducing the amount of time you spend on social media, or creating a space to store keepsakes from your former job—like office swag or holiday cards—for you to look back on in the future.

4. Practice acceptance  

Whether the decision to part ways with an organization is your own or not, as the departure date draws close, doubt may begin to creep in. If you’re leaving by choice, you may ask yourself questions like, “Will this be the right decision for me?” or “If I had done this differently, would I still have made the decision to leave?” If you have been let go or laid off, these questions might look like, “What could I have done differently to change the outcome?” or “Is there something wrong with me?” Leaving a job is both a transition and a risk. 

There is no way to turn back time and there is no crystal ball to predict the future—especially in the current job market. What is within your control, however, is to practice acceptance. When you do this, you are acknowledging the transition that you are in, and giving yourself permission to feel how you feel, in order to move towards your next opportunity. In the spirit of practicing acceptance, you may also want to try these practices to help you thrive in difficult times. 

5. Look toward the future   

The combination of the global health pandemic, the crisis of systemic racism, and the free fall of the global economy, makes it hard to look toward the future with confidence. 

Despite these challenges, though, there are some bright spots. Professionals now have more time—and more empathy—to welcome networking conversations. Jobs that may have once been out of reach due to geography requirements may now be accessible. Virtual volunteer opportunities have evolved and can provide ways to connect meaningfully with others while doing work that you love.

As we continue to move forward as a society, so too will bright spots and new opportunities emerge. How you choose to take advantage of these opportunities is up to you. By asking your current employer for what you need, maintaining clear lines of communication, setting reasonable boundaries, and practicing acceptance when looking toward the future, you will set yourself up to thrive.

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Have you recently exited an organization and are looking for your next opportunity? Explore thousands of social-impact job opportunities on idealist.org and let us help you find, land, love, and grow in your next role.

Lisa Dubler

Lisa Dubler is an experienced HR leader and community builder who is deeply committed to connecting individuals and teams with the resources they need in order to thrive. Lisa leverages her experience supporting leaders at all levels, from students to the C-suite, as a career coach specializing in master resume and cover letter writing, and interview preparation.

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