How To Leave Your Job With Dignity

On a balmy afternoon this past spring, I walked out of my former office with a bag of notepads, framed photos that had been sitting on my desk, and a box of 300 business cards that will never be used.

By Gwen Farrell5 min read
Pexels/cottonbro studio

I managed to keep my cool until I got to my car, but inside, I was absolutely crushed. I had been there for a year and a half, and had planned to be there even longer – had I not gotten laid off.

I had a few weeks’ time in between getting the news and my last day, and I had a lot of choices as to how I could go about fulfilling the final days in my career, a job I loved and dreamt of being in for the foreseeable future. You always want leaving anything – job, relationship, or otherwise – to be your choice, not someone else’s. And even as an adult, that’s really challenging mentally and emotionally to grapple with. There’s leaving your job, and then there’s leaving your job with grace and collectedness. Here’s how to leave your job with dignity.

Maintain Your Composure

I’ve never been what you’d call ascetic. Which is why when I got let go, I was feeling a lot of emotions, for a variety of reasons. I was thrown by the news, my husband had just quit his corporate job – meaning this had huge financial ramifications for us – and even before getting laid off, I had never been on the same wavelength as my boss.

But I knew that I had two choices. I could use my remaining weeks to tie up loose ends, leave my position neat and orderly for whoever took over my tasks, or completely lose it and be a drama queen every day I came into the office. The former is admittedly the harder thing to do. When you walk into a dumpster fire every day, it’s infinitely more tempting to throw gasoline on it than to throw sand. I was positive and as polite as I could possibly be. But every day I had to make that same decision over and over again, and even though it was difficult, I committed to it, knowing it was better in the long run than the alternative.

Only Answer If You’re Asked

Leaving a job you love but have a poor relationship with is in many ways like leaving a bad ex-boyfriend. It’s tempting to want to make them jealous or assure them how much better you are after cutting ties, but in the end, you’re the one who ends up looking desperate. It’s for that reason that I told no one what I planned to do after I left. I didn’t volunteer information in front of my boss, or make up grandiose tall tales of tons of high-paying job offers waiting at my feet. I kept my head down and worked, only answering questions when I was asked. I disclosed my future choices on a need-to-know basis only to the people closest to me who deserved to hear.

Write Letters You’ll Never Send

Working for someone you have no respect for is demoralizing. You might believe in your other teammates and the goal of the game, but when it comes to the coach, you have no confidence in their ability to lead or advise you. Everyone has bad bosses or toxic workplaces – it’s almost a rite of passage in adulthood – but how you treat someone you don’t care for says more about you than it does about them. In the remaining time I had before leaving for good, I had something I wanted to say to my boss every day. But I knew that saying those things wouldn’t be true to who I was and would make me the theatrical antagonist of workplace gossip for months to come in a small, tight-knit environment. 

Instead, I wrote and wrote and wrote. I wrote letters I will never send to people who offended me both professionally and personally, and in a way, it helped me achieve the closure I never thought I would get. I didn’t share them with anyone else or even tell my closest co-workers that I was doing it. But once I wrote them, I didn’t have to sit with those feelings of confusion, anger, frustration, resentment, and sadness anymore.

Carefully Weigh Burning Your Bridges

If my career has taught me anything, it’s that there’s a huge disparity in what’s considered acceptable, appropriate workplace behavior between baby boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z. I belong to Gen Z, if you couldn’t already guess, and I’ve noticed time after time there are failures in communication and misconceptions regarding the concept of professionalism between those generations. 

Any business review or professional career advisor will tell you that when leaving a job, burning bridges is a terrible idea. What if you apply for a position there in the future? What if you need a letter of recommendation? What if, what if, what if?

As any Gen Zer will tell you, though, we tend not to buy into that as heavily as older adults do. It’s just not in our nature, especially as we are more emotional and, in my opinion, not as invested in traditional workplace standards. I don’t personally recommend burning bridges – even though I left my job with no intention of ever returning to the traditional workforce – but know that it requires much more strength and mental fortitude to hold your tongue than to let loose. 

Don’t Be Angry If You Don’t Get the Last Word

Before I left, all I could think about was getting the last word. I wanted to disappear in a cloud of smoke, Wizard of Oz-style, after delivering a blistering blow to everyone who I thought had wronged me or set me back in some way. But I never got it.

I prepared for an exit interview that I never got, drafted memos and outlines for meetings that never happened. I never got the last word, and I agonized over that more than almost anything else. In my head, I had built it up as something that would rectify the situation and ameliorate all the anger and pain I felt.

In hindsight, I realized that it wouldn’t have. As humans, we often desire to selfishly hurt other people as much as they’ve hurt us. But it wouldn’t have changed anything, and it likely wouldn’t have made me feel any better. The best thing you can do is summon your inner resilience, and don’t even think about making the choice to move on – just do it.

Take Things Personally

We never really talk about how taking things personally can be a strength rather than a weakness. It means you’re highly invested in the situation and usually committed to a positive outcome. “Don’t take it personally” is terrible advice because it achieves nothing and doesn’t stop you from doing just that. And it’s usually meant to absolve the other person of any guilt or accountability. Taking things personally means being uncomfortable at times and having to sit with emotions you’d rather not experience. But it just means you’re human. All feelings pass or fade – sit with them, acknowledge they’re there and neither valid nor invalid, and let them go.

Don’t Do What People Expect of You

As much as you might want to cause a scene in the office – telling everyone exactly what you think of them, sparing no one – it won’t accomplish anything. Being an immature brat might have been what people expected me to do, but I never wanted to give them the satisfaction of being right. As petty as that sounds, it made me act with composure and decorum, and I didn’t do or say anything I regret.

Don’t Bad Mouth Your Employer

If you’re interviewing for your next position, you will have plenty of opportunities to bad mouth your former employer. Again, this says more about you than it does about them. Keep it to yourself, and if you need to share it, share it with someone you really trust – not a prospective boss who may be led to believe you have a habit of talking smack about people you don’t like. I may be Gen Z, but I’m old enough to know that’s never a good look. As hard as it is, be diplomatic if they ask you why you left, and be communicative about traits in supervisors that you work well or don’t work well with.

Leave on Acceptable Terms

It’s tempting to enclose yourself in a victim mindset, especially if you really are a casualty in the situation. It’s tempting to leave despising everything and everyone. But there’s peace in accepting that it is what it is. You can’t change things, nor can anyone else. You have your work and your reputation, and hopefully there are people who can say you’ve had a positive impact on them.

When I left the workforce for good this year, I didn’t really care what others thought of me, and there was freedom in that. But more importantly, I cared what I thought of myself, and it mattered to me how I acted. Now, on the other side of things, I’m glad that I didn’t embarrass or humiliate myself. You don’t have to lie to your employer or anyone else when you leave and say it’s the best job you’ve ever had. You don’t have to fake your emotions and be a pushover, or feel bad for feeling upset. But you don’t need to give in to impulses and burn everything down, either. You don’t have to leave on friendly, positive terms with people who treated you unacceptably, but you don’t need to act like they do to get a point across. Kill them with kindness, as they say.

In life, we don’t often get chances to make a stance and defend or justify our actions. It’s a wrestling match with our pride over this loss, but even when your pride is wounded, you still have your dignity. I represented myself first and foremost, and my family, and I left very gratified by the work that I’d put in. Things hardly ever turn out the way you hope or expect, but now that I’m a full-time, stay-at-home mom, I know deep down that as much as I loved my job, my employer did me a favor.

Closing Thoughts

Leaving a job you hate is easy. With that in the rear view mirror, you can focus on good things ahead. Leaving a job you love is much harder. But one door closing means so many others open, and you can be confident in the fact that you left a bad situation with your self-esteem intact.

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