How to leave your job without burning bridges

(MoneyWatch) Recent economic data show that job growth is steadily increasing. For some unhappy or restless employees, this means a welcome and overdue opportunity to find a new position.

In most industries, you should expect to cross paths with your current boss and colleagues in the future, so you'll want to avoid burning bridges by leaving in dramatic fashion. "There may be reasons in your own mind why walking out is appropriate, but short of a sense of real physical or mental danger, walking out can be a tough thing to live down," said Howard Seidel of executive consulting firm Essex Partners. Here's how to keep those old bonds healthy, even as you cut ties.

Tell your direct manager first. In general, you'll want to immediately tell your supervisor that you're moving on, so he or she doesn't hear about it through the grapevine. In some instances, you might also tell a close confidante who would be offended if they didn't know first. But no matter who you tell and when, ask them for discretion. "It is often appropriate to tell whomever you first give notice to let you tell some key others directly," Seidel said. 

Don't toy with a counteroffer if you don't want it. If you're hoping for a counteroffer from your current employer, by all means consider it. But if you've already accepted a new job or your heart is set on leaving, say so. "Don't make a company go through a fire drill to counter you if you know you are leaving anyway. That can cause or aggravate hard feelings," Seidel said.

Keep your anger private. Never say anything on Facebook or Twitter about your company that you wouldn't say face-to-face to the entire staff. "Facebook may seem like a safe environment for social confab, but it's far from private," noted career expert Debra Davenport, president of The Davenport Institute. At the office, take the high road no matter how bitterly your manager or colleagues might react to your departure. "Thank those with whom you worked and shake their hands. Show that you're a consummate professional, and you will be remembered fondly," Davenport said. 

Make their lives easy. Follow the Golden Rule, and think about what you would wish someone would do for you if you were the one picking up the pieces after the person left. "Make it easy for people to find important files, documents and contacts after you're gone," said executive coach Colette Ellis, founder of InStep Consulting. "Create an email or internal document that lets people know where they can find things." You don't want people griping about what a mess you left when you're not around to help.

Keep your exit interview professional. This closing conversation isn't a therapy session, but a time to offer constructive criticism that's not personal. "No matter what you are told, assume that your feedback could get back to people," Seidel said."It is a tough decision as to whether one should use an exit interview to call out behavior in an organization you consider to be wrong or abusive. One question to consider in making such a decision: Do I think the issues I experienced were an anomaly or part of the culture?" If it's ingrained in the culture, it's unlikely to change -- and probably part of the reason you're moving on.

Share your personal information. Sometimes bridges get burned not because of bad behavior, but because you lose touch. "Get people's personal email and phone numbers so you can keep in contact. Email them after you leave to give a quick update and keep the relationship going," said career coach David Couper, who advises against mass emails explaining your departure in detail. "They often appear negative and defensive," he warned.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Ammodramus