Maybe you’ve had this on-the-job fantasy in the middle of some interminable meeting, or after Chad, two cubicles over, steals your stapler for the thousandth time. You stand up, grab your desk cactus, and exit the building—but not before giving your boss and your colleagues a piece of your mind. Smashing the fax machine (or more likely, the copier) with a baseball bat may figure into the fantasy somewhere, too.
But this is real life, not Office Space. You have bills to pay and kids to feed (or at least a cat with a taste for organic salmon).
Still, odds are you will bid sayonara to several employers in your career—the average American worker stays at a job for just over four years. And while you’re probably focused on whatever comes next as you turn in your employee ID, what happens before you head for the door could have a big impact on your future—so you (obviously) need to avoid making a scene on your way out. Here are nine rules to live by when you quit your job.
1. Time your exit. Once you decide to move on, your impulse may be to leave ASAP. But—and this advice may sound like a no-brainer, but I’ve seen this ignored time after time—first, line up freelance gigs or another job if you haven’t already. It’s so much easier to get a job when you already have one. Meanwhile, boost the amount you are putting into savings—especially if you may not have a full-time job for a while. Finally, if you have a 401(k), a pension, or other benefits (such as company bonuses) that may be tied to the length of your employment, discreetly ask your human resources rep where you stand. You’ll kick yourself if you discover—after you quit—that if you’d stayed three more months, your employer’s contributions to your retirement savings plan would have been fully vested, but instead, you left $5,000 on the table.
2. Figure out your health insurance options. If you aren’t taking another job with health insurance, find out how long your benefits with your current company will last after you leave. In ‘’’addition, find out how much more it will cost to extend that company coverage under the insurance arrangement known as COBRA. What’s the cost to get a brand-new health plan on your own? You need to get answers to all these questions. For lots more help with health insurance, see Chapter 8 of my book Get a Financial Life.
3. Inform your boss before your coworkers—even your besties. Your supervisor shouldn’t hear the news that you’re leaving from anyone but you. It’s the professional thing to do. When you do deliver the news, cite the valuable experiences you’ve gotten at your company—even if you have to dig really deep—and emphasize that you’re only moving on because of [fill in the blank: an amazing job opportunity; family responsibilities; etc.]. Whatever story you give, keep it consistent, so your boss doesn’t hear one thing, and your water cooler pals another.
4. Suggest an exit plan. While it’s up to your boss to decide how to handle your departure, it’s a good idea to present a strategy for wrapping up or transferring projects or duties and training your replacement. You may find the process of explaining everything that you do to be personally fulfilling. They’re gonna miss you!
5. Give at least two weeks’ notice. A month or more is better for some jobs, particularly at the senior level. This will vary according to industry. Obviously, it’s something you’ll need to hammer out with your present (and future) employer.
6. Confirm prospective payments or benefits in writing before you leave. A tacit understanding between you and your old boss, or your favorite HR staff member, isn’t good enough. You’ll likely get your last check or two after you’ve left the company, when any queries from you about missing pay will just get shuffled around. So if there’s anything to dispute—compensation for unused vacation days, a project bonus—you will need concrete evidence in the form of a written agreement.
7. Never badmouth your old boss or colleagues. This can be tempting if you’re leaving your job because of your supervisor’s micromanaging ways, or that coworker who, you’re convinced, has an undiagnosed personality disorder. (Farewell, Chad!) But any bad feelings you’ll leave behind—or even create at your next workplace—aren’t worth it. And yes, this advice extends to your exit interview. Your scorched-earth honesty won’t change the company culture, but it could burn you.
8. Stay in touch with former colleagues. You never know what the future holds. Perhaps the job you always wanted at your old company—in a different department—will open up. You’ll want to know that if you apply and the hiring manager asks your old crew about you, they’ll say you were a solid citizen. Plus, you may need your old boss to serve as a reference the next time you switch jobs. A job network is a living organism that requires feeding, so be generous to former coworkers with your own tips and wisdom. One day when you need to fall back on that network, it’ll be there.
9. Build in a break between jobs. Many people I’ve talked to say they regret jumping straight from one employer to the next. A gap between jobs may be hard to push for, especially if your new boss asks you to start pronto, your old boss wants you to stay till the bitter end, and, all the while, you’re packing up and moving. Yet that’s the scenario in which you are most likely to need a breather. No one is going to be in dire straits if you negotiate a few days or even a couple of weeks for yourself. But, if you can afford the brief pause in income, it’ll make a huge difference as you start the next chapter of your career refreshed and raring to go.