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How to Leave Without Burning Bridges

Making savvy choices before you quit your job is your key to success. Leaving a job on great terms can open doors for you in the future and build profitable relationships. But if you run storming out of your ex-boss's office, you can almost guarantee messy references, lost job opportunities and unparalleled hassle.

Plus, you'll run another real risk. "Your new opportunity might fall through at the last minute. Here you are feeling aglow after letting them have it and, oops, [your new employer] hired someone else or the position isn't available after all," advises Jenette Rotatori-Zubero, owner of a coaching organization. Who needs that kind of stress?

Learning how to quit now will guarantee success later. Once you learn how to scoot successfully, your new skill works for every job you'll ever have. Whether you're wearing a paper hat and slinging burgers or sitting comfortably in your corner office, knowing the proper resignation techniques will give you power over this stressful process, earn you respect from co-workers and your boss, and possibly make you a happier person. Why grumble about leaving a job when you can get exactly what you want -- every time.?

Here are the basic steps involved in quitting a job:

Making sure

Although one bad day could send you into a frenzy, a little self-examination now could save you a lot of hassle later. The time to contemplate a possible job change is before you start interviewing -- not on the heels of another job offer. A few preliminary steps can tell you if you're having a bad workday -- or if you should get fitted for new walking shoes.

How to check in with your boss

Does your boss know why you're unhappy with your current job? Are you sure? It's easy to think our bosses are all-knowing, powerful individuals. Truth is, they're struggling as much as you are -- and they don't have time to check in on your happiness levels.

Schedule a meeting and share your frustrations with your supervisor. Talk about what you need, what you want and ask for support and guidance. "Ask yourself up front, what would I need to continue working here? Then ask for it," advises Margaret D'Anieri, owner of a business resource firm.

It may be that a simple tweak is all you need for job nirvana. Or you may be battling forces you can't beat. Either way, your employer knows you're searching for a change -- and you know where you stand.

Taking the blame -- learning what you could have done better

Beware of your inner whiner. If you are incredibly dissatisfied with your current position, a little soul-searching will prevent you from making the same mistake. If you find yourself blaming your job for all your problems, it's time to step back and figure, "Hey, what part do I play in this?"

"When you read this, you'll say 'yeah, right,' but just maybe some of the friction was caused by you. Just maybe you started or added to one or two incidences, which, in fact, leaves you to blame. Accept that your challenges with your current employer may not have been 100 percent their fault," advises Rotatori-Zubero. "It will leave you with self-esteem to realize you took responsibility for your actions leading up to you leaving the company."

Why loose lips cost jobs

You've soul-searched, talked to your boss and you're still not happy. That's OK. What's not OK is telling your friends, co-workers and strangers on the street you're looking for a new job. The world is a small, small place -- and your current supervisor holds the ultimate power. If word gets back you're searching for a new job, you may find yourself fired from your current one. "Your employer may fire you, accelerating the timeline of your own termination," reports Oriente. That's one chance you don't want to take.

Cutting the cord

It's time to walk. You may have another job lined up -- or you may plan to be "jobless" while you search. Either way, this is the stressful time -- the time when you have to tell your boss and co-workers. Don't worry. A few tips can make this process slide by -- and will make you look fantastic.

What kind of notice you should give

Dying to quit on the spot? Don't. Your employer needs your notice time to find a replacement, transition any paperwork and shuffle personnel. Not giving proper notice will virtually guarantee you a negative or non-committal reference -- and that's something to avoid at all costs.

Most companies require at least two weeks' written notice before your last day. Some executive positions may require more notice or involved paperwork, so it's best to confirm policies with your human resources department. "A rule of thumb is your official notice period should be as long as your vacation. If there's a company policy about notice, that's what you use as your guide," reports Marian Banker, owner of a business strategy company.

Your written notice should be short, sweet, to the point and proofed by at least three other people. Include the date, when you're leaving and where your final check can be mailed. This is not the time to write a 10-page treatise on why you hate your job.

"Bad news travels fast and the world is smaller than you think. And, besides, why would you want to do this? If it's out of spite, don't think you'll be happier anywhere else," warns D'Anieri.

How to handle a counter-offer from your boss

Of course, leaving any job may mean some unexpected twists and turns. You may be standing in front of your supervisor, written notice in hand, only to hear him say, "What would it take to make you stay?"

Be careful with this. Although fantasies of more money and slack vacation times come to mind, it's best to examine your motivations before you accept. Remember, you've already talked to your boss, so he knew you were unhappy.

"If you get a counter-offer, really think it over," advises Rotatori-Zubero. "Is the extra money going to make your life that much better? Where is the real career opportunity? Most importantly, if they had really been concerned about your employment, why did they wait for another company to want you?"

If you want to stay and the terms are good -- fantastic. If you want to leave, your employer has your resignation letter. Either way, you get what you want -- and still look like a street-savvy professional.

What to do if they kick you out

Strange, but true. You may tender your two weeks' resignation, only to have your boss say it's "company policy" you leave today. Shell-shocked, you gather up your desk, wondering why you feel like a criminal.

Don't worry. This is becoming a common practice among some employers -- and it has nothing to do with you and your work. You can prepare for that possibility while negotiating with your new employer. Oriente suggests asking, "If they [my old employer] terminate me on the spot, would you be willing to employ me on the spot?" You start your new job early and your boss followed company policy. Everyone wins.

Telling your co-workers

Did your boss announce your resignation? If so, you've already covered this base. If not, you'll have to break the news tactfully without succumbing to treacherous office gossip.

Is your first thought, "Hey, as long as my boss knows, why should I care about my co-workers?" Simple. Your receptionist, who answers phones for a living now, may start a successful company later. If she hears about your resignation "through the grapevine," she may feel hurt enough never to deal with you again. You don't have to tell everyone you're leaving -- but telling your important co-workers is a crucial step.

How to fade gracefully into the sunset

Just do it. It's tough, it's uncomfortable -- but your co-workers need to know. You don't have to tell them the down-and-dirty details, but simply telling them you're leaving is an important step.

How you tell them is up to you. You could meet with people individually, or schedule a meeting. Depending on the office, you could even make your resignation a fun event. "You can schedule an after-hours dinner and let them all know what a pleasure it's been working with them, but your career is taking a new turn and you'll be no longer working at the company," says Rotatori-Zubero.

Want to keep in touch? Your notice period is a wonderful time to collect e-mail addresses, phone numbers and letters of reference. Next time you need a job, or if you ever plan to freelance, you'll have a killer networking list. Plus, you never know -- your ex-receptionist could be promoted to vice-president of marketing. Now that's one e-mail address you'll want to keep.

Avoiding the revenge motivation

Sure, it's tempting. Everyone knows you've never liked Joanie. You didn't think your boss's jokes were that funny, either. You're dying to get in a huge trash-fest, cutting co-workers down with a single verbal blow. Should you act on your primitive urges? Nope.

It may be fun, but it doesn't solve anything. Your co-workers will still work with those people long after you leave -- and they may wonder what you've said about them. Just keep your mouth shut and leave with dignity.

"At this point, the whole point is moot. You're gone. I doubt if anyone would really want to hear it," says Banker. Besides, your bad-mouthed boss may be a valuable contact later. Did you really want him to know your nickname for him was "Mr. Stinky?"

Surviving your notice period

Prepare yourself for a whirlwind. Although your mind is gracefully floating towards your new job, your bottom is firmly planted to your old chair. You may be tempted to slack off -- after all, you're leaving anyway. Remember, this is your final test. If you pass this and keep your old boss happy, you'll be home free -- and have a fantastic reference to show for it.

Why to train your replacement -- and what you can gain

You're the expert -- and your boss will turn to you for training. Although "head trainer" isn't in your job description, training your replacement is considered due process. "If you have chosen to leave and your position has been of value to the organization, someone has to carry on in your absence," explains Banker.

Besides, offering to train your replacement could net you an important benefit -- a written letter of recommendation. "Exchange training your replacement for a kind letter and a referral," says Oriente. You'll get a valuable letter and your boss knows your replacement was trained well. What a deal.

Warning -- training time is not party time. Ever been trained by someone who just didn't care? Remember how difficult your first few weeks were? If you flake out on training, you won't be hurting your boss. You will be hurting the poor, innocent soul who replaced you. That's not cool.

Gather up all your documentation, organize your files and help your replacement find their niche. Be careful of letting your own attitudes and petty office rumors rear their ugly heads. You may dislike John with a passion, but don't gossip about his ineffectual managerial skills. "I'd tend to let [your replacement] know the organizational realities [like marketing really drives this company, or the VP really hates long slide presentations] but not delve into Mary Canary is having an affair and Joe Slow is an idiot," warns D'Anieri.

Your last day: how to handle it

Congratulations! You made it. You've cleared your desk, your replacement is trained and you've said your goodbyes. It's a good idea to confirm your old boss has your new e-mail and phone number in case they want to contact you with questions or for help.

You've successfully built bridges rather than burned them -- and you're leaving in style. Your old boss is happy, your new boss is thrilled and you're still friends with your co-workers. Everyone won -- and you came out smelling like a rose. Now, go out there and conquer that new job.