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Plan a Graceful Exit

By Rebecca R. Hastings  2/1/2007

As tempting as it may seem, shouting "take this job and shove it" before bolting for the door is not the best way for an HR professional to quit a job. Before you announce your resignation (whether it's of your own choosing or not), you should lay the groundwork for a smooth transition, experts say.

For example, make a list of job duties so anyone who walks into the job can pick up where you left off, says Susan Geary, owner of 1st Rate Rsums in Prescott, Ariz., and vice president of public relations for Career Directors International, a professional association for career professionals.

Review company policies and benefits before making an announcement, says Kimberly Schneiderman, owner of New York-based City Career Services , to determine what the company will provide in terms of vacation and sick time. And find out when insurance will end and whether COBRA will be needed or not.

Do some housecleaning by deleting personal e-mails and gathering personal documents, Schneiderman says, and by taking an inventory of personal items in the desk or workspace in case the departure is earlier than expected. "But don't start taking things home right away," she cautions.

Delivering the Message
If your departure is voluntary, keep in mind that diplomacy and timing are critical when it comes to delivering the news to the boss. "Arrange a face-to-face appointment for a scheduled time vs. popping in and giving notice," says Rene Nielsen, president and founder of Nielsen Associates , an executive search firm in Hauppauge, N.Y., specializing in sourcing and placing HR professionals. "It shows you value their time."

If the boss is out of town, Nielsen says it's best to wait to deliver the news, if possible. "But if they are on vacation, resign to your manager's manager," she says.

A resignation meeting should focus on positives, not negatives. Nielsen suggests opening the conversation with compliments about the organization, the learning experiences and other positive aspects of the job. "Then give a reason why you are moving on," she says.

The meeting can also be used to request a positive reference from the supervisor, offer help with the transition and to indicate a desire to stay in touch, Geary says.

Put It in Writing
A verbal resignation should be accompanied by a written resignation indicating that employment with the company has been a wonderful experience and that the resignation is being tendered with deep regret, Nielsen says. The aim is to document that the resignation was offered in a gracious manner.

"Be appreciative of the company in the resignation letter," Schneiderman says. "I wouldn't say anything about the new job, but I would say things like, 'Thank you for what you've done for me,' 'Thanks for the opportunities' and 'I look forward to continuing to stay in touch with you.'"

Setting the Transition Period
The notice period should reflect an individual's level within the organization, as well as the established norm within the company and the industry, experts say. "Use judgment regarding how much notice to give," Schneiderman says. "Two weeks is standard, but, at a certain level, you might give more."

Resignation strategies will differ when a succession plan is in place, says George Puig, president of Futurestep North America , a subsidiary of the recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International. The succession plan may identify names of candidates for the position, enabling an organization to act immediately to fill an expected gap. "When [a plan is] well-defined it makes the resignation process a little less difficult for the employer," he says.

If a succession plan is vague or nonexistent, ample notice becomes even more important, Puig says. "Sixty days' notice is standard practice for those in officer, vice president or senior vice president roles."

No Notice Required
There is always the chance a supervisor will ask you to leave immediately upon giving notice. In some industries that is standard practice. Even if it wasn't your plan, be prepared to make a speedy exit with grace, recommends Schneiderman. Be prepared to turn in keys and credit cards and provide your supervisor with a list of personal items to be shipped later.

"In some cases the firm and the individual are like family," Puig says. In those cases a request to leave immediately may be an emotional reaction to what may be perceived as a personal insult. Departing workers may want to try to explain to the company how they can add value during their notice period, he says.

Parting Pitfalls
Interrupting the boss to suddenly drop the news tops of the list of mistakes to avoid, according to Nielsen. But job changers should also resist the temptation to enumerate complaints about the company and negative circumstances that prompted the decision to change jobs.

Puig says individuals sometimes overlook personal responsibility for existing projects and assignments. "In the spirit of making sure [that employees are] leaving on a good note, they need to create action plans to cover special projects to be sure they don't fall through the cracks," he says.

Another mistake some job changers make is telling co-workers of an impending move before they break the news to the boss, says Geary. "If word gets around, that doesn't look good," she says. "It should be official first."

Next Steps
"Your last two weeks should be as productive as normal, if not more so," Nielsen says.

Avoid "short-timer syndrome", Geary says, by making efforts to tie up loose ends. "This is not the time to be a slacker," she says. "Don't take long lunches; keep following the rules."

Spending the time finding a replacement is one option. "Help the company hire your replacement by writing a job ad," Schneiderman say. "You know the job best; help them recruit and interview if you can."

An individual's exit strategy should help the company facilitate the transition, Puig says, including training and knowledge transfer to a replacement or interim person. "Taking responsibility for that shows not only good faith on the part of the individual, it also mitigates some extenuating circumstances," he says, adding that the individual should be proactive about offering assistance.

"Write a manual for your job so someone new has something to refer to," Schneiderman says. "It can help keep you on the employer's good side." She also suggests taking the time to review the status of ongoing projects with the boss and peers so they all know where things stand.

Keeping Up Appearances

Remain professional throughout the notice period, regardless of the circumstances. "I wouldn't burn any bridges," Geary says. "Don't say anything bad about people, and don't walk off with company information like phone lists or salary surveys."

During the notice period departing workers should take steps to ensure they will be viewed as professionals who are leaving the organization in good faith following a very positive experience," Puig says. In conversations with colleagues and employees they should emphasize what they've learned and the relationships they've established, he adds.

"Don't talk about the new position," Nielsen says, and let the manager make the announcement to the organization.

Assuming a departure occurs on a positive note, Schneiderman suggests maintaining periodic contact with former colleagues to facilitate references and networking for the future.

"As long as the person left on good terms and the culture within the company is people-oriented I don't see a problem with someone keeping in touch," Puig says. "But it has to be at a professional level so there is no perception that the person is trying to attract talent away from the company," he adds.

"Make yourself available," says Geary. "It shows you still care."

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is online writer/editor for SHRM. 

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