Why You Should Never Burn a Bridge (Except When You Should)

August 24, 2015

Why You Should Never Burn a Bridge (Except When You Should)

How many times have you heard the old adage, ‘never burn a bridge’?

Whether you work in a specialized field or a small state (ahem Delaware), the likelihood of you crossing paths with ex-bosses and colleagues is high. Ending a work-related relationship on a sour note can prove disastrous for your career, reputation, and future opportunities.

Here’s a couple reasons why you should never burn a bridge (plus, an exception to the rule). And some tips on how to avoid burning a bridge and how to rebuild one.

Your Career is ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’

Be cautious if you plan to stay in the same field. While ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ is a popular game, think about it, it’s actually pretty accurate. You’ll likely encounter former employees or colleagues (or someone who knows them) down the road.

So if you had daily epic meltdowns a la Office Space (or you’re Lindsay Lohan), chances are people won’t be keen on working with you again.

The same goes for building relationships with your competitors and dealing with customers. Cultivate a good rapport because that competitor could become your boss tomorrow or that customer’s negative review/feedback could go viral.

When Richard Branson sold Virgin Records, he could have jetted off to space literally. Instead he asked himself, ‘why burn bridges when you can build them’? As a business owner, he knew his priority was his staff. The transition went smoothly, and he still keeps in touch, and collaborates, with many of them.

A Disastrous Job Exit Will Haunt You

Perhaps you were wronged and went out in a blaze of glory. Maybe you yelled, slammed desk drawers, stomped through the office, or insulted your colleagues. Although you were entitled to your feelings, that was a bad move on your part.

Why? Well, a disastrous job exit will leave you forever engrained in the minds of your former manager, HR, and co-workers, effectively burning multiple bridges. Do you think down the road, that manager would provide a recommendation to a potential new employer for someone who left on such bad terms? Sometimes you have to suppress your feelings and suck it up. After all, only Cartman can get away with “Screw you guys, I’m going home.”

When leaving a job — whether you quit, get fired, or get laid off — remember there’s a right way to exit.

Lynn Taylor, author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant, recommends taking the time to write out your thoughts beforehand. You’ll avoid launching into a negative rant and will be able to highlight the positive aspects of working for your soon-to-be former boss and company.

Other helpful tips to keep in mind:

  • Give at least two weeks notice. (Obviously this doesn’t apply during a layoff.)
  • Make every effort to meet with the person when resigning. Avoid leaving a voicemail or sending an email unless there’s no other option.
  • Don’t offer unsolicited advice i.e. Jim-Bob sucks so you should really be firing him.

And whatever you do, don’t make comments such as:

What Not to Say

If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all, well, at least until the HR exit interview. Then you can share your reasons for departure in a private, professional setting. If you’re a hard worker, they may even try to rectify the situation or negotiate salary to get you to stay.

If You’ve Already Burnt a Bridge, Try to Rebuild It

Maybe you were young, naive, and screwed up. Not to fret, there are ways to fix a burnt bridge, as writer Christina Berchini learned. The first step is to reach out to the person, admit you made a mistake, and apologize. Then it’s up to the other person to accept the apology. Her former boss accepted, and now they’re working together again.

On the flipside, if you’re the one being asked to forgive, it might be in your best interest to do so, too. For instance, a proofreader lost her freelance contract when a new boss came in and shook things up. Later on, they realized they made a mistake and needed her. She decided not to burn her bridge and accepted the renewed business relationship.

Although it’s important to note that not every bridge is worth maintaining, especially if it was a toxic situation. Sometimes it’s okay to say no. When there are no redeeming qualities, a bridge is better left burned.

The Exception: When You Should Burn a Bridge

Former Google employee Arman Assadi once burned a bridge, but it wasn’t for the reason you might think. He left the company to become an entrepreneur.

In Assadi’s case, he burned ‘the boats’ instead of a bridge, so he could reach the point of no return. It’s an unconventional approach, but without a fallback Plan B (returning to Google), he had to put all of his focus on Plan A, which was his mission and brand.

Should you decide to burn a bridge on purpose, make sure it’s a controlled burn. Control it by:

  • Having a solid reason for the ‘burn’ (i.e. disassociating yourself from Enron before it imploded).
  • Being direct.
  • Staying professional, don’t become emotional.

Burning a bridge can have a lasting impact on your career, so think long and hard before you light that torch. Is it something you can live with? If so, then burn, baby, burn.

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