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Quit, Fired, Downsized: Leave on your own terms

In the February 10, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, we discuss how to know it’s time to go, what to say to exit interviews, and how to resign right.

How are you leaving?leaving

Last week I introduced you to my new PDF book, Parting Company | How to leave your job, and we briefly discussed a reader’s question about what she should say to other employers about getting fired.

But there’s a lot more to the challenge of “parting company” with your employer. This gets short shrift from career writers and advisors because it’s considered water under the bridge — everyone wants to talk about “what to do next.”

The thing is, how you handle leaving your job is largely up to you. It can affect your prospects dramatically — and it can hurt your career. Even if you get fired, you have choices. It’s important to know what your options are. Whether you quit, get fired, or get downsized, do it on your own terms.

Leave on your own terms

This week, I’d like to share some advice straight from the book — just a few of the many issues you need to consider before you take that big step out the door.

Say NO to exit interviews

Whether you get fired or quit, never do an exit interview. (pp. 53-57) I have polled HR managers for over a decade. None can name one benefit of the dreaded exit interview for the departing employee, but I can name several serious risks. Whether you say complimentary things in an exit interview, or make critical comments and vent your frustrations, your words can be used against you.

Most obvious: Suppose you need to take legal action to get your final paycheck or a bonus you’re owed, or because you later realize you were discriminated against. Your employer can use your verbose comments to support its own case. Or, if someone later calls this employer to check your references, any negative comments saved to your personnel file might influence the quality of references you’re given.

Consenting to an exit interview just isn’t worth it.

HR managers argue that they need your candid comments if they’re to improve the company and their processes. But if that really matters to your employer, then HR should be asking you exit interview questions regularly, while you’re an employee, so you can benefit from any resulting improvements.

These are just a few reasons why, when you’re leaving your job, the prudent response to an exit interview is, No, thank you.

Read the signals now

Is it time to go? (pp. 9-11) You should be the best judge of whether it’s time to leave your job, before your employer decides for you. People often get fired because they don’t see signals that it’s time to go. It may be time to go when:

  • You’ve got no professional support. You’re the “top dog” in your department, and there’s no one to mentor you further. You start to stagnate, while everyone else comes to you for help doing their jobs.
  • You’re always ahead of your employer. You understand your work, your tools, the market, and trends better than your employer does, but no one listens to you.
  • You are isolated. There are too many walls between your job function and the rest of the company. You’re not allowed to put your head together with other departments to produce the best solutions. Everyone is isolated.
  • You’re not growing. Your employer doesn’t encourage continuing education and offers little, if any, training. They like you just the way you are, and they want you to stay that way.

Resign right

Do you know how to resign? (pp. 40-49) Many people simply don’t know how to resign properly. This can be catastrophic. Get your ducks in a row before you do it.

  • goodbye1Check your employer’s exit policy. You may be ushered out the door instantly, without being allowed to return to your desk. Find out how others have been treated, and check the written policy.
  • Never resign your old job unless you have the new offer in writing. I’ve seen too many people treat an oral offer as bona fide, quit their old job, and find themselves on the street when the offer is never finalized, or rescinded.
  • Get your stuff. Never take what’s not yours, but if you announce your departure too early, you may have to fight to get your belongings back. Plan ahead.
  • Resign in writing, one sentence only. This is no time to hand your employer ammo against you. Keep it short: “I, John Jones, hereby resign my position with ABC Company.” Sign and deliver to your boss with a copy to HR. Anything you say beyond that can be used against you by your employer. A resignation is business, not personal. Keep it simple.

These tips are excerpted from Parting Company | How to leave your job. There are far too many topics in the book to summarize here. (Check the Table Of Contents for a complete list.)

Next week, we’ll take a look at the HR process that kicks in when you’re on your way out the door. I’ll tell you about The 7 Gotchas of Goodbye. (Oh, yes — HR is waiting for you with a few surprises!)

Have you been fired or downsized? Did you quit for a better job? Did anything happen in the process that you didn’t expect or plan for? How have you controlled your departure from an employer?

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32 Comments
  1. It’s so hard to find jobs now.
    I am in a saturated field, that just keeps pouring more and more people out of schools. The schools keep shortening the programs so they can graduate earlier too.
    Lost my job and was replaced by someone right out of school. There were some moans about it, since I had a lot of experience, which made others’ jobs a lot easier.

    Now, it’s the inexperienced getting the jobs because of age discrimination and cheaper pay.

    I wonder if the people utilizing this “no one older” policy are ever thinking they’d be the victims themselves. They will get older.

  2. With respect to reading the signals, those are spot-on for my situation.

    No Professional Support or Growth Opportunities
    I became PMP (project management professional)certified, with zero support from my company. Acquiring the education, and preparing for and taking the exam cost me several thousands of dollar. I have not been promoted or recognized for this achievement, but they rely on my PMP skill set to move projects forward that the managers will not.

    I am starting a web/app developer program in the spring and will finish this fall. I doubt this will be valued by my employer either.

    I will be looking for a new place to work because I did not spend the time and money to acquire these skills so they can stagnate.

  3. What if your employer forces an exit interview in exchange for a severance, and you can’t afford to say no? How do you handle that interview while doing minimal damage to yourself?

  4. required exit interview – they can require it but they can;t really make you respond in any particular way

    that seems obvious

    wle

  5. “You’ve got no professional support. You’re the “top dog” in your department, and there’s no one to mentor you further. You start to stagnate, while everyone else comes to you for help doing their jobs.”

    Wow! This was exactly what was happening. I can’t believe that I had allowed this to happen. I thought everyone coming to me for help with their jobs was a sign of my value, but I missed my own stagnation.

    I’m no longer with this company that I’d been with for 14 years. After 9 months with my 5th new Director, he felt we just didn’t seem to communicate and I seemed burnt out. No kidding! I’d trained new bosses for a long time but made no progress of my own.

    In October I turned in my resignation and the company agreed to several months severance if I stayed until the end of the year. I finally left, but with a feeling that I wasn’t sure how this whole episode transpired. But I IGNORED the signs that it was time to leave.

    I’m still deciding what I’m going to do next, but I will never put myself in that position again. This has been the most helpful website I’ve found since I resigned. Thank you for all the intelligent and inspiring information.

  6. Gus: It’s worth point out that, for every complaint I hear about age discrimination and people being hired right out of school to replace people with much more experience, I hear another complaint about how people right out of school can’t find jobs and nobody will take a chance on someone with little experience when they can hire someone with much more experience for roughly the same price.

    As you said, it’s a tough market. I don’t think you can blame either phenomenon… they both happen. Neither happens all the time.

  7. @dlms, @Steve: Glad those points resonated with you. The reason I publish this stuff is because people tend to ignore their own radar. They know there’s a problem, but they understandably suppress it. I just try to bring it to the surface. If this helps you, I’m glad. Thanks for the kind words.

    @Shajenko: It seems in U.S. jurisdictions an employer cannot withhold pay, but severance isn’t pay. I’m not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice, but I believe they can put any conditions they want on severance. What I would do: If you want to get the severance, go to the interview, be respectful, but answer very briefly, or say, “I don’t really know or have any comment on that.” So you technically do the interview, but say nothing. Just be careful not to tick off the HR person by being cocky about it. Come across as sincere; make the HR person believe you really have no opinion or anything to say. larry english has the idea.

  8. @Shajenko: We had a couple of people who were dismissed where I work and HR put a stipulation that they would rescind severance pay if they contacted any current employee, whether the contact was wanted or not.

    If you want the severance pay, I think Nick provided you with good advice.

    @Nick: Thanks for confirming my gut instinct that my current situation is not tenable. Seeing the signals in writing is was what I needed.

  9. How to leave. Professionally. Take the high road, no matter how bad you’ve been treated. Treat your boss/company as if you were the boss and someone was leaving you. How would you like it to happen?

    Been there done that. When I left voluntarily, as Nick said I planned ahead and made sure I had everything ready to hand off well..to whomever.

    When I was tossed out. I don’t recall being blindsided so I made sure I was ready to wrap up & hand off when the time came.

    This is not for them.. This is for you. So you know you were a class act.

  10. As I was being fired I asked the COO if he had experince w/being litigated. Just wanted him to hang onto a nugget that would scare the **** out of him – no other reason :). (The FDIC took control eventually and he was “shown the door” w/his buddies.)

  11. When I was laid off, fired, or my department was closed down, there was no exit interview. The decisions were the firms’ and all they wanted to do was complete the paperwork and get the people who were being affected out of the building.

    When I left of my own accord, my letter of resignation was exactly as Nick prescribed, with the customary “two weeks notice” clause. I handed it to my boss late on Friday afternoon, and he said he’d pretend he didn’t see it until Monday morning, as he wasn’t sure if I’d be immediately escorted to the door or not. (He’d been trying to get me promoted for a year, and was probably even more frustrated with that aspect than I was.)

    When I had the “exit interview” with HR the following week, I was prepared to offer constructive criticism and suggestions. However, their only question was, “Why are you leaving?” When I told them that I’d received an offer from another firm, that’s all they wanted to know — no details regarding title, salary, job responsibilities … nothing. I don’t think it lasted more than 90 seconds. My boss told me that they never asked for his feedback, either. So much for HR’s efforts to try to understand what the firm was doing well, and what might need some attention.

  12. @ the risk of stating the obvious, most employers who are letting employees go are NOT interested in your honest feedback. It would seem that the time for honest feedback would have occurred during your tenure.

  13. Employers aren’t even interested in hearing how you’ll make them more profitable, I can tell you. And if that is the case, there is a much more serious problem with American businesses than ever thought.

  14. I’ll share one of my departure stories that exemplifies Nick’s point “know your companies exit policy”
    The time came in one of the companies I worked for when my wall said my time was coming. I’d been part of a product development that underwhelmed the marketplace i’e fell short of the blue sky predictions (or perhaps a better word is additions) that executive management hoped for. This was about 3 years of my working life. But we were modestly successful, to where we had some seriously important customers, so it couldn’t just be shot. When the going gets touch, the tough go shopping so The Division I worked for looked for some place to dump it and bow out, and finessed transferring the project to another Division, who really didn’t want it. I told my boss I couldn’t be saved, didn’t want to be saved, so instead of trying to find me another place, buy me time.(so I’d hit the retirement criteria for tenure).(a form of exit). We decided that a good tactic would be to effect my transfer to the receiving Division for the project billing me as someone who logically could him them give the last rites to the project (true).
    Now I’m a stranger in a strange land, even more of a target for a layoff, which did come and as expected I was thrown under the bus.
    This was a large corporation with a wide reach. I worked in TX for a boss in California. a relationship of strangers.
    So here’s what ensued.
    I get scheduled into a con call. Boss & an HR rep on one end, me on the other.
    She let’s me know quickly that she’s cutting me loose. (nothing personal, not performance related etc etc)
    Now here’s where knowing the company’s exit policy comes into play. (which as a manager I knew & she should have known)
    I asked her when she wanted to meet.
    “Meet?”.
    (me) “Yes when are you coming in to terminate me?”
    (boss). “That’s what this call is about”
    (me) “I understand, but you can’t terminate me by phone, it has to be done in person”
    (boss to HR rep) “Is that right?” HR rep (“Yes, that’s policy”
    I can almost hear my boss squirm..a round trip plane trip & all the inconvenience it infers..just to repeat in person, what she just told me…a half hour task, tops)
    (me) “yeah, you have to take my badge, keys, validate that I’ve returned company property (my laptop) & walk me to the door
    (boss to the wind. HR & me) “Isn’t there any other way to do this?”
    (me). How about if I find someone of equal level, to act as your surrogate?” “Will that work?”
    (HR)..Ummmm yes we can do that.
    (me) “Tell you what..I’ll see if my previous boss can do it..She’s a Director”
    (boss & HR) OK…(me) I’ll get back to you”
    Shortly after..I call my previous aforementioned boss) “Robin can you do me a favor” (Robin) “sure, what?”
    (me) “I need you to fire me”.
    I then repeated the above, explained the situation.
    She had a full schedule so we scheduled it for the next day, I let my current boss & HR know it would be taken care of by Robin, gave them her name, & contacts etc.
    Closing this out was pro forma. She had a meeting. I gathered my meager pile of personal stuff, found a dolly, loaded it up, waited in my office, read a magazine and waited for her.
    She came over and she collected my key, unbadged me, etc. then she took the dolly and we walked the walk, she took me to my car & that was it.
    I found out shortly after, she had been promoted to a VP and was a VP when she walked me. I sent her a note about how honored & flattered I was to be fired by a VP, so much better than my CA boss. I had a vision of people pointing at us saying “Wow! he must be somebody to have a VP push his cart”
    Oh and to anyone who read my note in last week’s blog about my exit from my previous company where I asked for a lot of extra stuff….She knew that story, so when I went to turn in my (older model) laptop, she signed it over to me and put it on the cart)
    So in this company knowing exit policy didn’t get me anything material, but Robin & I had a good laugh and have a good story

  15. @Sara
    While one would like to assume that managers care about profit..in reality it’s an abstract concept for most managers. Particularly in large corporations.

    there are definitely managers who care about profits. Those who are responsible for P&L centers, Profit and Loss centers, who are accountable for, the bottom line that shows you’ve made a profit (or loss). And their feet are held to the fire to be profitable. This means they have a span of control and the resources to do so. If you’re talking to one of those types and you can show them you can make them more profitable, and speak to them in those terms, you have a good chance of getting their attention.
    As such, this is true of small businesses where you’re talking to the business owner.
    But in large corporations aside from sales, most managers run expense centers. Everything they do is an expense and the best you can propose is to reduce expense which defacto should increase profit. But frankly it’s abstract and indirect and gets the contribution is diluted. a gray area. So these types of managers are not profit oriented. and they fit well into an old saying “show me metrics and I’ll show you behavior” So Managers of expense centers tend to be functionally oriented, not profit oriented. If they run a department full of engineers, (an expense) they tend to be impressed by someone who lay’s claim to be a better engineer and as such make their department better at engineering.
    Another consideration that can impact profit is time…reducing time to market of a new product in theory can increase revenue and/or cash flow. Again unless that’s happening inside a P&L center where that manager can see the results. it’s an abstract argument.
    In all corporations at some point there’s a P&L manager, but in large corporations the span of control is so large, expense or time saving contributions get heavily diluted. the smaller units within that P&L can’t demonstrate their contribution to revenue and profit.
    Then there’s sales..You’d expect Sales to be in a good position. They generate revenue. But revenue isn’t profit. Especially if expenses to generate it eat it up.
    This all points out the value and target of researching a company. If you believe you can increase profit, you want to find and talk to managers who are P&L managers, where your proposal has meaning. Otherwise you’re talking to the wall.
    It also presents a good argument…for targeting small companies with owners who have skin in the game. They like profitable discussions too

  16. This wasn’t a traditional job, but I recently left a client who was balking at paying me for work already rendered and yet was asking for more work… I politely told them ‘no’ and said that I am busy with other clients right now.

    Wouldn’t you know, almost immediately, they apologize profusely, beg for me to come back, and finally agree to pay me for work I already finished.

  17. @Carl: Hopefully u moved on after the full payment of work already done cleared. They sound less than ethical.

  18. Good points all around about the pitfalls of the exit interview. I agree; if they truly wanted honest feedback about the problems within a dept., they would have solicited this information long before employees began fleeing the sinking ship. It is also good advice to avoid the exit interview lest your words come back to bite you on the butt. I used to joke with a former colleague that Miranda-like warnings should be issued prior to exit interviews. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you.

    If managers or HR are waiting until the best people are leaving or have left, then they’re more than a day late and a dollar short. And the other question is are they doing exit interviews because they really want to make changes and improvements and stop the brain and skills drain, or are they doing to fill time (another task to make HR look busy) and/or cover HR’s and the managers’ butts?

  19. This whole seines demonstrates why Nick’s column is a must read by anyone working for a living; it continues to have the BEST advice and commentators.

  20. I got fired in November 2014, and my employer’s reason was because I was not a good fit for the culture, after having worked there 17 months, working 14-16 hours a day, with no managerial/dept support. I’ve been telling interviewers that I was let go due to restructuring, since you can’t tell a potential employer that you were fired due to a not being a good fit. Has anyone experienced this and what how did you address it?

  21. I also have a question for the Ask the Headhunter community.

    My company is going to hire a couple of people who will be doing about 40-50% of my current job duties. I asked my boss what will take place for this loss–she was vague and mumbled something about helping with other things that are far less challenging. For the rest of my job, I think they could parse out the work to other people.

    Should I see the handwriting on the wall that my position may be eliminated? I know we are a cost center for the organization. My salary is certainly not one of the higher paid positions in my division, but this hiring of additional people to do what I already do bothers me.

  22. @dlms: If a manager is not forthcoming, it’s not a good sign. Of course, that just might mean the manager doesn’t feel secure, not that you’re in jeopardy. My rule is, if you feel uncertain about your future in your company, hedge your bet by quietly starting a job search.

  23. @Nick: Thanks. Feeling uncertain is a good description.

    On the upside, I will begin a web/app developer program and should be done by early November of this year. The school I’m working with has a successful job placement rate for entry level developers. That, coupled with my other skills, will (I hope) allow me to land a better paying and more challenging job.

  24. “None can name one benefit of the dreaded exit interview for the departing employee”

    Maintaining a relationship with your previous boss / employer. I worked for a small state government office. My boss had been extremely supportive while I was job searching, and following Nick’s advice, I worked as hard as I’d ever worked during my last year on the job.

    My boss asked me for an exit interview and asked me some pretty tough questions about how the office was run and what I thought about other employees. It went fine. I do basically the same work for a private company in a different region now, and my former boss and I have remained in contact and he has been a valuable resource. I don’t think I could have refused an exit interview under those circumstances, nor would I have wanted to. Obviously a boss/employer who lets you openly job search for months is not the typical situation. My job before that I turned in a written 2-week notice on a Friday afternoon. They didn’t ask for an exit interview and I would have declined it anyway.

    I think this is case by case basis, but there can be a benefit to an exit interview: maintaining a relationship with your former boss.

  25. @Drew: Thanks for taking the challenge :-). Good answer, but I still contend an exit interview isn’t necessary to maintain a good relationship. You could have had the discussion off-line, informally, and it seems you did. The boss doesn’t normally conduct an exit interview; HR does. And HR wasn’t involved. No one scheduled it as a formality. It was a boss and employee who already had a solid understanding. Kudos to you both for talking candidly with trust.

    If HR had scheduled you for an exit interview in their office, I think you might have felt differently. But that’s not my call. Thanks for sharing your story.

  26. By now I’ve left a # of jobs and never have had an exit interview, nor conducted one.

    There’s a lot of good points thus far in the discussion. I suppose when it comes to legalities, my guess is the companies worry about it more than the employee, which is why you seldom get any. When you are asked (told) to leave, they think they already know the reasons and you have nothing to add.

    The company I work for exemplifies another reason, they think people will just vent or as advised herein, say nothing but CYA “dont-burn-your-bridges” statements. So why bother?

    On the volunteered departure, (quit, sayonara) My view is exit interviews kind of put deed to the phrase “locking the doors after the horse has been stolen”. To me the problem isn’t leaving…it’s looking. If you as a manager, and/or your company is screwing up or screwing over employees to the point they need to check their options, or can be lured out the door, sorry it’s too late and your only recourse is a counter offer which is ill advised on both sides of the table…in sum it’s too late.

    The reason a company should want to do exit interviews, is to gain insights on improvement..improving organizational performance, & the means for that is managerial performance. Yet they don’t ask, even in companies that espouse process improvement as a mantra.

    Why? I had a great boss once. He opined that (upper) management doesn’t want to hear about problems…because if they do, they’ll have to do something about it…For instance, something about a manager who is running an organization with a revolving door, because he/she has air between their ears that fans the flames coming out of their butt. Conflict avoidance kicks in, or it’s someone’s buddy, or someone hired and/or promoted them and is also culpable.

    HR organizations see this, more than others, but are political beasts like their peers. Until that manager screws up functionally and commits hari kari by shooting themselves in the foot (a sales manager that doesn’t see..a development manager that habitually produces crap) HR is a gossip that leans on the back fence tsk tsking… Show me metrics and I’ll show you behavior. Managers are graded on functional performance, not managerial performance. So squandering human resources is not as sinful as simply squandering money..which I can see.

    If you really want to know the best exit interviews are done with some time between departure and the interview..if the person is so inclined. That is wait 6 months until the person’s in their new job, and can can be objective.

    Drew’s boss was a rarity. He really wanted to know, to learn information that he could use to tune up his organization. That’s what an exit interview is for.

  27. this section applied to me until i was laid off after 25+ years.

    “Read the signals now
    Is it time to go? (pp. 9-11) You should be the best judge of whether it’s time to leave your job, before your employer decides for you. People often get fired because they don’t see signals that it’s time to go. It may be time to go when:

    You’ve got no professional support. You’re the “top dog” in your department, and there’s no one to mentor you further. You start to stagnate, while everyone else comes to you for help doing their jobs.
    You’re always ahead of your employer. You understand your work, your tools, the market, and trends better than your employer does, but no one listens to you.
    You are isolated. There are too many walls between your job function and the rest of the company. You’re not allowed to put your head together with other departments to produce the best solutions. Everyone is isolated.
    You’re not growing. Your employer doesn’t encourage continuing education and offers little, if any, training. They like you just the way you are, and they want you to stay that way.”

    as my daughter says OMG!! i was the shining star, got bonus, great reviews and raises and then….well what you wrote is what became of me.

  28. Having experienced much of what you have said during the past three years, I am now being “transitioned” to part-time at the beginning of the fiscal year. This is not all bad as I retain medical benefits and am going to work on a few projects that I actually selected and enjoy. Here’s my question though: I have decided that enough is enough. I’m tired of dealing with a jealous, insecure boss who “puts me in my place.” At every opportunity. I want to leave at the end of next year. I’m 60 and the company does not have a defined retirement age. Would it be better to retire at the end of FY 17 or just submit my resignation? Retirees are generally given a small send off in the office with cake and a gift. And leave amicably whereas resigning sends a different message and prompts questions. I may seek other employment or freelance after I leave here.

  29. Sorry published too soon. Look forward to your thoughts and thanks for the great advice.

  30. @Maggie. It’s not clear how long you invested time in the company…nor more important what formally retiring gets you? You mentioned they have no formal retirement age, but do they even have a formal retirement program, which lays out eligibility.

    If all you get is cake, ice cream gifts and a send off ,and nothing more & you’ll had your fill of building your character by dealing with an insecure boss, why wait until the end of a fiscal year? Leave now.

    In my case I’m retired 3 times over. In the 1st case I was actually caught in a downsizing, but since I was eligible for retirement, at the end of a generous severance I was automatically retired. That got me a tiny pension, but more important, retirement medical.

    I went to another company & history repeated. Laid off, but also eligible for retirement. The most valuable thing I got out of that was again retirement medical and stock options.

    The 3rd time I just resigned to move. Got a wave and a smile.

    If retirement gives you no gain, the end result is the same as resigning. If I like part time, it meets my needs, I like my projects, I’d tough it out, and perhaps annoy the Hell out of the boss. What have you got to lose? be fired? downsized? the end result will be the same.

    The part time is useful as you can use it to plan and position yourself for your next step

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