How to Quit Your Job

Last Updated Oct 19, 2010 7:28 PM EDT

I remember the first time I had to tell my boss I was leaving. After 13 years with the same firm, I'd become fed up, frustrated and bored. My new job had higher status, more autonomy and a lot more money. With my ego at an all-time high, I couldn't wait to go in and tell my boss -- with the full panoply of vindictive glory -- that I was leaving to work for a competitor who truly appreciated me.

Thank god a friend stopped me.

Most people have fantasies of the triumphant exit. Especially if it's taken you too long to leave a dead-end job, the delight in escape can be hard to mask. But it's vitally important. Why?

However satisfying the immediate thrill of sticking it to your boss, you need to remember that your paths may well cross again. Life is long and the world isn't nearly as big as you might imagine. I've crossed oceans and changed industries only to find myself at a conference table with former colleagues. No one wants to spend a career dodging unnecessarily offended co-workers.

Moreover, every career is a reputation. That reputation isn't built on big events but on thousands of small conversations, exchanges, meetings and phone calls. However frustrated you may have been, if people think well of you, it's a shame to waste that asset for a moment's delight. Keep your reputation; you'll need it.

This pertains to exit interviews, too. Savvy executives know that this is not the moment for revenge. If your co-workers or supervisors were truly incompetent, you should have said or done something earlier. Leave it for the exit interview and your integrity will be shot. At best, you look like a coward, at worst deceitful. Lambasting everyone you've worked with won't fix the company, it will merely ensure that you never work there again.

When I finally calmed down enough to tell my boss I was leaving, I gave him a bottle of his favorite wine, saying that I didn't want my exit to leave a bad taste in his mouth. I'd come to understand that how you leave a job defines how you will forever think about what you did and learned there. It can be a chapter in a book that is about success or about failure. But it's never the end of the story.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user John Manogian III, CC 2.0

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.