How to quit your job in style

Take this job and ... may I have a good reference as I leave?
Take this job and ... may I have a good reference as I leave? Photo: iStock

Breakin' up is hard to do …

The crooning Neil Sedaka lyric rings in my ears as I think of the last time someone gave me the news of their resignation.

Let's face it – it's never a pleasant situation, and it can, in the worst case, literally end in tears for the employee or the employer – or both.

Tania Seary: Take a measured approach to resigning.
Tania Seary: Take a measured approach to resigning. 

But that doesn't need to be the case if you, the employee, take a measured approach to resigning.

Just like an employer generally has to give two or three formal warnings before they can fire someone, I think it's good practice for an employee to also give two or three warnings on their journey to resignation.

Following a structured process could increase your chance of turning around your existing job situation, perhaps even leading you to stay put. It could also maximise your chance of a civilised and potentially positive departure from your employer, with a glowing reference in hand.

OK, so you've decided to quit your job. That's it, you're out of there. Now what?

Wait two weeks.

You are probably thinking, 'what do you mean? I want to go straight in and tell them what I think of them!' That might be the case, but that wouldn't be very strategic, would it?

The most important thing to remember is that you're trying to build your career, not stick it to your boss. People often quit in anger as a result of something their boss or company has (or has not) done.

A dramatic departure typically ends up causing more trouble for the employee than the employer. It may sound harsh, but your company will replace you faster than you think. As one of my mentors says: "Leaving a company is like taking your hand out of a bucket of water … it may make a small ripple, but within seconds it's like you were never there." So don't think 'I'm going to show them', because your departure won't make a huge difference to the company, but it will make a huge difference to you. That's why you need to be strategic in resigning.

If your career is important to you, take control and manage the outcomes. That same wise mentor of mine says: "The only common denominator in your career is you." So ensure every boss you have had, no matter how bad you think they are, is an advocate of yours in some way. To be successful, you need as many people as possible in your corner, promoting you and your skills.

That's why I recommend resigning in five smooth, strategic and stylish steps:

1.   The 'I need more' meeting

This is the first shot across the bow, where you put forward your personal business case for change. This is where you highlight the skills you have that you feel should be further leveraged by the company, or the experience you need the company to provide you with, in order to advance your career. You and your manager should agree on goals and a timeframe for this to happen. This is more than likely part of your regular performance review.

Now … this is where it's important that you really reconsider whether you still want to resign. One of the big mistakes many employees make is that they assume just because their boss isn't talking specifically about their development, that they aren't thinking about it. There are often discussions and planning taking place behind the scenes about high potential talent – your employer may not make it obvious. Give your boss and employer the benefit of the doubt. Give them the opportunity to share their thoughts, or at least get motivated on an action plan for your development.

2.   The 'it's not happening' meeting

This is when you meet with your boss to explain that the support or guidance offered in the 'I need more' review meeting is insufficient. This should spell out what you need, and by when. You should also ask what else you could or should be doing to help the company help you. There is a fine line you need to walk here … you need to be the squeaky wheel who needs growth, not the high-maintenance employee who needs to be placated.

3.   The 'you need to know I'm looking' meeting

This is the reciprocal to what an employer would call a final warning meeting. This is when you explain that you appreciate the efforts the company is making to help facilitate your professional growth, but the efforts are not hitting the mark. Importantly, your language should not be threatening and should focus on the facts about what was agreed and delivered or not delivered following previous meetings.

4.   The 'I've accepted another offer' meeting

This is the big one – the meeting when you resign. If you have done your job well in the first three meetings, this meeting will be relatively painless. You have been really open with your boss and given them every opportunity to respond to your professional development needs, so the resignation should come as no surprise. You may need to be prepared for a less-than-professional response. Hold your own and take the high ground. Remember, your goal is to be the most professional person in the room. You have followed a really transparent, structured process and given the company every opportunity to retain you. Now's the time to stand proud.

5.   The 'Let's shake hands and be friends' moment

I might be slightly optimistic about this one, but at least you should finish this meeting on the grounds of mutual respect. In the weeks that follow you will have numerous opportunities to do the right thing – getting your handover notes in order, briefing others in your team, sending the right messages to external and internal audiences about the reasons you are leaving, and the list goes on. This is your opportunity to ensure you leave on good terms, and you and your boss could be either advocates, or at least referees for each other.

In my experience, my worst bosses have been the ones that I have learnt the most from. So, if your boss was Mr Last Minute and his tardiness drove you clinically insane, you will be able to say: "In this job I learnt the importance of punctuality." If your boss never met, called or emailed his team, you could say: "In this job I learnt the importance of communication in building employee engagement."

Do these five steps all sound tedious and time consuming? They should, because if you do this properly, it could take up to six months. The reality is that you probably started applying for jobs at meeting number two, and even if you were outrageously lucky and expedient in the job application process, filling the role from start to finish will be three months anyway.  

By following these five steps, you will have provided your employer with every opportunity to compel you to stay so you can feel comfortable that you're making your next career move for all the right reasons.

Tania Seary is the founder of three procurement related businesses: The Faculty, a procurement management consultancy; its sister recruitment firm The Source; and Procurious, an online networking business for logistics, supply chain and procurement professionals.