Your Career Q&A: Gracefully Managing Your Exit and Entrance

By Martin Yate Nov 17, 2015
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This week’s Your Career Q&A column addresses what happens after one company buys another and you find—for whatever reason—that you have to look for a new job. Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.

For the past five years, my job has required that I travel about two weeks out of every month to visit our other locations. I’ve enjoyed the travel and the opportunity to get to know other cities. But we recently bought another company, and I hear that my travel will be expanded by another week each month. I just don’t think I can handle spending three out of every four weeks on the road—I have pets, and my pet care bills are already too high. I really like every other aspect of my job, and there isn’t anyone else here who wants to handle the travel. What can I do?

Kristina, Tampa, Fla.

I heard it through the grapevine

There is a difference between hearing information through the grapevine and being given it as a directive by management. I suggest you check your sources and use any time you have before meeting with your boss to formulate intelligent questions about all the ways new ownership is likely to affect your responsibilities.

Traveling for work 75 percent of the time is a heavy load. Unless such travel is normal for companies in your niche, it is reasonable, for example, to ask:

  • If there will be any changes in salary and incentives.
  • If the company will help with the increased expenses you’ll incur in the maintenance of your household, given that your travel will increase by 50 percent.

Keep intentions confidential

If you don’t like the answers and decide that the job is untenable, don’t express that in word, deed or body language. Say thanks and that you’ll absorb all the information—and then get back to work.

Whatever responses you receive and whatever real-world changes occur, do not complain or become passive-aggressive. Instead, assure management that you are excited about the changes and that you’ll be giving the new responsibilities your all.

Whenever there is a merging of companies, if there is wood to be cut, attitude will always be a consideration. If you share your dissatisfaction in word or deed with anyone, it will reach the people who control your employment. Your best interests are served when you make a move on your timetable, not theirs, and keeping your affairs confidential stacks the odds in your favor.

The confidential exit strategy

Privately, you must build an exit strategy while you simultaneously give every appearance of being the new company’s biggest fan. There is a silver lining to the new travel schedule: It will give you lots of time to update your resume and to build and execute an effective job search plan. You can schedule phone calls and interviews in between flights and in hotel rooms at night.

Making lemonade

How much can you really achieve? Well, many moons ago, with a travel schedule similar to yours, I changed jobs and also wrote a book while on planes and in airports, restaurants and hotel rooms; that book is now in its 31st edition and still going strong. A bad job can sometimes change your life for the better.

Me, Inc. and practical pragmatism

Your most important consideration is thinking of yourself as Me, Inc., a company that makes pragmatic decisions based on its best interests. And just like every company, you should move forward with your plans on a need-to-know basis that maximizes the stability and success of the financial entity: the corporation that is you.

I’m looking for a new job. (My company was sold and I didn’t like the new ownership.) I’m good at what I do and can manage every aspect of HR. My problem is that the job ended badly, and I know the CEO won’t say good things about me. I was there 11 years and after the sale a year ago, it was clear the new owners had a different view of how HR should be managed. The work environment really deteriorated, and I had several disagreements with the CEO before departing. The prior CEO, with whom I had a great relationship, has since passed away. How can I overcome the bad references I expect I’ll get?

Bill, Bethesda, Md.

There are steps you can take to help you move past the bad experience. The first step is dealing with the question “Why did you leave that job?” during an interview, and the second step is managing your references.

Don’t talk too much

When there is a straightforward reason for leaving a job, you should explain in 20 to 40 seconds and then stop talking. Across the desk, when the interviewer hears a short, succinct answer, he or she mentally checks a box and moves on.

When a job ends badly, job hunters tend to dwell on the unfairness and avoid facing how they will answer the inevitable question at a job interview. When the question arises, they ramble and then trail off into silence. This immediately raises questions about their candidacy. Fortunately, we can fix the problem.

Managing your references

If you don’t know already, find out the reference-checking policy at your old company. If, like many companies, the organization gives only dates of employment and your final salary, this is to your advantage.

If it provides more-detailed references, you still have options. You may have worked for the CEO, but you also worked for the CFO, the COO, etc. Will they say positive things about you? Find out.

You can also approach the CEO who terminated you. Call and say that you want to clear the air and that you’re sorry for the way things ended, and then take responsibility for your role in events. Next, say that after 11 years with the company, potential employers are certain to want to check references. Then ask what he or she would be able to say about you. If it’s negative, respond, “Jack, if you say that, I’m never going to work again. Is that what you want?” Carefully applied guilt often works. If the response is merely lukewarm, you can address that in your interviews.

Crafting a credible answer

Once you know what references will say, you are in a position to craft that short, succinct answer. The following language can be adapted to your unique circumstances:

“I reported to the same CEO for 11 years. The company was taken over, and he died soon after. The new CEO wanted HR to function in a different way—I think he wanted to bring an old colleague in from the start—and, after giving it my best shot, I left within the year.”

You might then add, “You can check with [insert CEO’s name here], but better insights might be gained from the COO and CFO for whom I also worked for many years.”

The most important consideration is to decide on the content of your answer and to turn it into several bullet points. Don’t write out full sentences, since you’ll never remember them and you’ll end up rambling again. Rehearse your bullet points out loud until you can give your answer confidently and succinctly, ideally in under 40 seconds. With your work history, it’s a check-box question unless you make it otherwise, so keep it short and sweet.

Martin Yate is a New York Times best-selling author and has worked as a Silicon Valley headhunter, director of HR at a publicly traded technology company, and director of training and development at a multinational employment services franchisor. His company, Knock ’em Dead, delivers professional resume and coaching services.

Have a question for Martin? E-mail your queries to YourCareerQA@shrm.org. We’ll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know. We look forward to hearing from you!

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