How to quit your job without pissing off your boss

By Nihar Chhaya

 
April 16, 2022
How to quit your job without pissing off your boss
 

We’ve all read about the Great Resignation—and maybe you’re thinking you’d like to be a part of it. Feeling disengaged at your company not only leads to a higher motivation to quit, it increases as more people around you leave. And this wave is not ending anytime soon: A new study shows employee engagement dropped this year for the first time in a decade.

Historically, the most common factor behind an employee’s decision to quit is their manager–from how their boss treats them to whether they empower them to grow while also playing to their strengths. And these days, intolerance of a poor manager is at an all-time high, leading to people being more willing to leave even without another job in hand.  

But managers are struggling just as much as their direct reports, from experiencing personal burnout to failing at arguably the most important thing to employees—communication—which has only become more challenging due to the recent shift to remote work. Basically, it used to be that people quit because of bad managers, but now everyone is feeling the strain.

So, if you are one of the many people thinking about writing a resignation letter, it’s worth giving special consideration to what you will say to your boss before departing. 

In today’s world of work, with so many other talented people flooding the job market, employers having greater access to information about employees before hiring, and a more socially connected universe of influential decision-makers, you can’t afford to lose control over the narrative others hear about you. Here are four things to consider when telling your company you want to quit, in order to maximize your career success beyond your current position.  

Break the news with both firmness and sincerity

Ideally, you should have a face-to-face conversation to share your decision to resign, but a video conference may be the closest option given the current state of work. Just don’t do it by email or text, which not only seems flippant, but leaves room for ambiguity. And when you do meet your manager, frame the news with confident ownership and goodwill around your decision, steering clear of both guilt and gripe.

You can start by saying, “You’ve been such an essential colleague to me, so I wanted to share this news with you first. I’ve decided to make a move that feels in line with my career aspirations at this time, so I’m planning to resign. I’d like to discuss how best to start my transition out of the company.”  

Indeed, your manager may react in ways you can’t foresee. They may be shocked, perhaps feel betrayed, uneasy, or try to make you change your mind.  

Rather than succumb to pressure to address every question they may have at the moment, aim to make this first conversation a short but pleasant one. Show conviction about your decision as well as warmth about their concerns by suggesting a follow-up chat to cover more details. 

Tell them, “I just wanted to make sure I let you know now, so you would hear it from me first, out of respect. But let’s plan to discuss this further tomorrow if possible.”

Creating this pause until another discussion encourages your manager to process the news the way they need to and prevents them from acting impulsively. It also keeps you from saying anything more than you want to in the moment, which could affect how they view you after leaving. 

Choose gratitude over gloating

Voluntarily quitting your job is the ultimate expression of self-determination. So, whether you are excited about landing a new opportunity or relieved to finally leave a toxic employer, you will feel rejuvenated. Enjoy this restorative mood, but don’t let it turn into gloating. Instead, show gratitude for the opportunity of working with that manager and company. 

 

How you come across during this transition will influence how people remember you. Consider Daniel Kahneman and Barbara Frederickson’s research on the “peak-end rule,” which shows that we judge experiences not by all the moments in their duration but by their peak (or most intense) moment and by their ending. 

Our memories of events and people are positive if they end favorably. Similarly, the majority of your past experiences with your manager may have been great, but if they end badly, your manager may remember you in the future with displeasure or detachment.

So have some empathy as your colleagues will have to pick up extra work temporarily while you are merrily on your way. Don’t add insult to injury by boasting about your next move or remind people what they’re missing out in the job market by staying put.

Years ago, when I told my boss that I would quit my job at a Fortune 200 company to start my executive coaching practice, I mostly wanted to leave to pursue my entrepreneurial dreams, not join another company. But some of my distaste with the way management operated did provide the impetus I needed to boldly quit with no other job in hand.

Still, I chose to express my decision with appreciation and optimism, not complaints and criticism. Quitting is usually a negative experience, because any abrupt change is initially unpleasant. But eventually these things may become blessings in disguise, because some breakups are necessary to get each participant closer to their own needs for fulfillment. 

And even if you’re leaving because you deeply resent your manager or company, remember that there was a time in the past when you felt valued enough to take a job there, which in some way helped you be on the radar for new opportunities today. 

We all have imperfections, so try suspending any bitterness for now and be grateful for how far you’ve come. Doing so will help you leave with dignity, and even offer your equally imperfect colleagues some grace.

Don’t let your boss’s reactions undermine your decision

When you tell your manager you’ve decided to resign, don’t be surprised if they are more concerned about how this change affects them. They may worry about whether your decision will reflect poorly on their reputation as a leader, or the stress of having to fill another position in a tough labor market.  

And if your boss is ambitious and happens to be unfulfilled themselves, they may start wondering about the opportunity that lured you away and whether your marketability as their junior indicates something worrisome about their career decisions to this point.

Whatever their response, stay focused on keeping your self-worth and impeccable reputation, regardless of their power or influence.

I once coached a marketing executive at a mid-market company who had a stellar brand at her company and was very well respected among her peers. After long deliberation, she decided to take a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and quit to join a significant global player in her space. 

But when she broke the news to her manager, her boss immediately badmouthed the other company, offering up names of people she said were unhappy there and virtually mocking my client for wanting to work there when “their brand is so overrated.”  

Upon hearing this, my client was hurt and disappointed that her boss couldn’t be happy for her. But she decided to rise above the pettiness, knowing that her boss’s put-downs came from her insecurities and, therefore, would not take the bait and defend her decision nor capitulate to such views.  

Nothing good ever comes from trying to outshine your boss or getting dragged into a debate about your career. My client gave her manager space to react as she wanted to while preserving her unblemished brand of kindness and integrity. She could then leave knowing that any future negative perceptions of her were at least not of her doing.

Explore how best to support your manager and successor

In addition to how you make people feel when quitting, they will remember how you transitioned your work responsibilities. Some managers will welcome a robust plan and your time to help, while others may prefer a swift exit, especially if it coincides with year-end or a predetermined succession plan.  

You can say to your manager, “It’s important to me that my departure is as seamless for you and the team as possible. I want to offer my dedicated focus on a transition plan before leaving, but I also don’t want to be in the way or linger beyond what’s needed.”

One of my clients was leaving her company after 15 years with nothing but affection for the company, so she offered to stick around for several weeks, help select and train her successor, and say her goodbyes without rushing. You may be the opposite and be itching to get this job in the rear-view mirror as soon as possible. Whatever your situation, invite your manager’s guidance on what is most appropriate while honoring your commitments to a future employer. 

The key lesson is to never take anyone for granted, even when you are leaving. The world is becoming smaller every day, given the ever-advancing nature of technology and social media. People in your current orbit will influence your future employers and clients and may already know them.

And as you advance to higher leadership roles, the universe of industry leaders becomes exceptionally familiar. You’ll likely cross paths with your former boss somewhere else in your career. So, make every effort to have your manager and teammates remember you as an irreplaceable asset they would choose to invest in again, rather than a liability to avoid.

With more people quitting their jobs these days, the stigma of moving on from your employer is less damaging than before. But how you express your decision to leave takes on greater importance, because there’s more at stake for your future reputation in today’s interconnected work world. You can make sure your professional brand flourishes even during career transitions by following these strategies.   


Nihar Chhaya is an executive coach to the C-suite and leaders at global companies, including American Airlines, Coca-Cola, DraftKings, Raytheon Technologies, Wieden+Kennedy and more. Access his free white paper on the power of coaching for successful executives.


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