How to Leave a Job on Good Terms | Part 1

Deborah Swerdlow

A woman smiling and making the peace sign

There’s no better feeling than accepting a job offer that you worked incredibly hard to get. That is, until you realize you have to tell your current boss that you’re leaving.

What can you say to your boss to preserve your relationship? How will he take the news? And once you’ve told your boss, what can you do next to ensure a smooth transition?

You’re not the only one who’s had to face these questions.

Drawing from career experts and social-impact professionals who have been in your shoes, this two-part post recommends several steps to leaving your job on good terms. In Part 1, we focus on what to say to your boss and coworkers, and how to say it.

Tell your boss and coworkers in person, if possible

Face-to-face conversations facilitate trust, which is an important component in any relationship. Telling your boss face to face that you’re leaving can help reinforce the trust you’ve already established and remind him that you can be trusted to ensure a smooth transition.

In-person conversation also give you an opportunity to read the other person’s emotions, which can help you navigate your notice period.

Does your boss seem engaged when you start sharing your ideas for how to ensure a smooth transition? If so, then he may be open to being actively involved by shadowing your conversations with coworkers who will be taking on your responsibilities or walking through the documentation you’re leaving for your successor (more on that below).

What if your boss is on vacation or another kind of leave when you need to deliver the news? Or what if your boss is impossible to get hold of? Alison Green has addressed both of these scenarios in her Ask a Manager blog.

In both situations, Green advises, it helps to know your boss. Would he react well to his time off being interrupted by a work matter? If not, or if you’re unsure, you can start by giving your notice to the person you’re reporting to in his absence or to the human resources department.

For the busy boss, try to set an in-person meeting before resorting to email or another method. Make sure he knows the topic is important and time-sensitive.

If you can’t get hold of your boss or don’t feel comfortable telling him in person, you can send a letter of resignation (an email works fine). In fact, even if you do give notice in person, most offices will want an official letter of resignation for their records.

Pro Tip: You can use our template as a guide for your resignation letter.

Once you’ve told your boss, ask how he would prefer you to notify coworkers, direct reports, and others with whom you interact. In some situations, your departure could be sensitive information.

If possible, it’s best to tell your closest coworkers and direct reports in person or follow up with them individually after your boss tells them. Preserving relationships with your colleagues can serve you well in your notice period and as you continue in your career.

Express gratitude for your time at the organization

Figuring out what to say to your boss can feel as hard as figuring out how to say it. As in many situations, “thank you” (or something like it) is a good place to start.

In your conversation with your boss, you can use or adapt the language from our resignation letter template: “I can’t begin to tell you how much I have appreciated all of the opportunities I’ve had here at [ORGANIZATION NAME], and while I’m eager to embark on my next step, I know that the camaraderie and support that I’ve enjoyed as a part of your team will not be easily matched.”

A few more pointers to help this conversation go smoothly:

  • Be firm and confident when you give your notice so you don’t feel pressured to stay longer.
  • Resist the urge to over-explain yourself. While it can be helpful to tell your boss that you’ve accepted another job (so that he knows your decision has been made and you have a firm date by which you need to move on), you don’t need to go into details of your new position.
  • Before talking with your boss, try to anticipate the questions he may ask you, such as what you’re doing next. You’ll also want to be prepared to handle a counter-offer, if it comes.

Give at least two weeks notice

The notice period is a courtesy to your employer and your coworkers since they will need time to determine how to handle your workload without you and possibly hire your replacement.

Two weeks is the standard notice period, but you’re not required to give that amount. Lindsay Olson, co-founder of Paradigm Staffing, writes, “If you feel you have been harassed or verbally abused, there's no benefit to staying.” Similarly, if you’re in a hostile or highly stressful environment, staying an additional two weeks could be harmful.

One thing to keep in mind, though: Giving less than two weeks notice could negatively impact a future reference from your organization, since two weeks is standard.

On the flip side, you may want to give more than two weeks notice if you have a big project that is wrapping up in the next month or if your employer has accommodated—and expressed appreciation for—longer notice periods in the past.

There can be such a thing as too much notice, though. Nonprofit communications professional Elizabeth Bolton learned that the hard way when she gave four and a half weeks of notice before leaving an associate departmental director position she had held for eight years.

Bolton says the long notice period created some tension with her new employer (who was eager for her to start right away) while making things awkward at her current employer (who was able to transition most of her projects more quickly than she imagined, thus leaving Bolton with unexpected free time at the office).

Another thing to consider: A long notice period can make it harder to take time off between jobs (which is highly recommended).

Bolton says that the next time she switched jobs, she gave about two weeks notice and then took off two weeks before the new job. As a result, she showed up at the new job fresh and raring to go.

In Part 2 of this post, we’ll talk about how to make the most of your notice period and ensure a smooth transition.

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Deborah Swerdlow

As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.

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