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The HR Gantlet: How to leave your job without getting hurt

In the June 30, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader is faced with the HR gantlet on his way out the door.

Question

I’m leaving my company and HR is asking me to sign all sorts of forms and documents. I’m faced with reams of legal-ese! I’m worried they’re going to slip in something that hurts me later. I also want to make sure I get documents that I might need later, and I want to avoid doing anything that might get me sued. Do you have any tips so I won’t get hurt while I make my way through the HR gantlet on the way out the door?

Nick’s Reply

gantletThe path out the door, whether you quit or have been fired, is usually rushed and HR goes into high gear issuing orders and giving you paperwork to sign.

Some of the paperwork is for your own protection. For example, insurance and retirement account information. Some of it can indeed hurt you later. I can’t walk you through everything in a newsletter, but I can touch on some gotchas you should be aware of.

This is from the “Crib Sheet” section of my PDF book, Parting Company: How to leave your job, pp. 67-73.


  • If you were fired after being put on a Personal Improvement Plan (PIP), obtain copies of relevant documents. Even if you don’t expect to take legal action, you may change your mind and your lawyer will need the information.
  • If you are given a letter of separation that requires you to sign off, consider having an attorney review it before you sign. Don’t forfeit your rights in an effort to exit quickly. Protect yourself.
  • Don’t leave your personal stuff in your office. Upon termination or resignation, you may not be able to retrieve it easily. Some employers will lock you out and pack what they believe is yours and ship it to you later. (See “Get your stuff,” p. 46.)
  • Don’t use company technology to store personal information. If the laptop and phone belong to the company, so does what’s stored on them.
  • If you work in sales, discuss who owns your customers and contact lists. Keep what’s yours, but don’t take what belongs to the company.
  • If you’ve been involved in inventions or patents or proprietary information, make sure you understand who owns the rights. Be aware of any restraints you may have already agreed to, e.g., Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA). Retain copies for your files and possibly for your attorney.
  • If you’ve signed any Non-Compete Agreements (NCA), make sure you understand the restraints. NCAs usually define a time period, geographic region, named customers you may not call on, and other terms. Retain copies. [Note: NCAs are not legal in some jurisdictions. Employers want you to sign them anyway. Also be careful with NDAs — Non-Disclosure Agreements.]
  • Do you anticipate a lawsuit for wrongful termination, age or sex discrimination, or sexual harassment? Before you do anything pertaining to your exit, consult an attorney. What you say or do during the exit process might be used against you. Don’t limit your options carelessly.
  • Throughout your exit process, carry a notebook. Make it clear to HR that you are taking notes about commitments and representations made to you. To put it bluntly, this encourages HR to take it all more seriously—and it keeps everyone more honest.

If you think you may need legal advice, don’t dawdle. Start by identifying good employment lawyers through trusted referrals, and inquire what the fees are. An initial consultation often costs nothing, or very little. Compare that to the cost of parting company without legal assistance.

There are many daunting challenges and choices you probably don’t realize you’ll face during this awkward time.

  • Do you know how to resign? (p. 40)
  • Should you consent to an exit interview? (p. 53)
  • Did getting fired shatter your self-confidence? (p. 12)
  • Should you accept a “package” to quit your job voluntarily? (p. 26)
  • What’s the truth about counter-offers? Should you accept one? (p. 50)
  • How can you prepare for the shock of a downsizing? (p. 20)
  • Is outplacement a big, costly mistake? (p. 28)
  • How do you explain to a new employer why you left your old one? (p. 58)

Reprinted from Parting Company: How to leave your job, pp. 67-73.


I hope these few tips cover some of your bigger concerns. When I wrote this book, I spoke with some of the best HR folks I know — and some of their warnings surprised me. Parting company can be a trying experience, so be careful.

The last bit of advice I’ll give you is this: Be on your best behavior on the way out the door, no matter how your employer behaves. Do the right thing, be professional, be cordial — but protect yourself.

Parting company can be a friendly experience, or you can get burned. What’s your experience been? When you left a job, did you encounter any nasty surprises you’d like to warn others about? Or, did your old employer do something nice during your departure?

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8 Comments
  1. I’ve been on both sides of the table on being laid off, fired, and leaving voluntarily over my 30 years in business.

    HR is excellent at trying to maintain the employee-employer relationship to their advantage.

    Once you (plural) have established that you are leaving, you sign nothing. Gather it up and tell them you will contact them at your leisure. You no longer work there. They no longer have any authority and yet will try to assert it.

    When I received a request for an exit interview at “last W2 job” I informed them my hourly rate was 650 usd per hour, 4 hour minimum. Paid in advance. Please remit to…..

    By the way, I’ve never sued an ex-employer. I am guilty of starting a competing company and killing an ex-employer in the market place, buts that’s not personal, it’s just business.

  2. Excellent summary, Nick. I would also add to beware of exit interviews because what you say or write could come back to bite you on the ass later, with another employer.

    If you’ve quit because of management, of how the company or agency is run, because of policies, because there is not enough help for the work that is required, because of (fill in the blank), telling HR about it won’t help. Depending upon your line of work, it can be a very small world, with managers and bosses knowing eachother, and no one really wants to hear about the problems, even if they should. If HR is asking you “what’s wrong, why are you leaving?” as you are walking out of the door, they’re more than a day late and a dollar short, and these issues should have been addressed long ago.

  3. Make sure to have your benefits in writing. I had carry-over vacation due to me. I got it in writing from HR. When I left, HR tried to back out. I forwarded them their own note, and magically got paid. HR is not your friend; their paychecks are not signed by you.

  4. @Jim: I love it. Score 50 points for that one!

    @marybeth: There’s a whole section in the book about exit interviews, and you just summarized it :-)

  5. Excellent review of what to be aware at exit time from company. Have been laid off or terminated several times in the past.

    Be aware of the company offering you a placement agency (or counseling) to “help you with the job search.” This happened to me once when I knew that it was a cover for their egregious violation of a federal law that no one in higher up would even admit to doing. Got a good business-oriented lawyer in a hurry who spotted a lot of problems in the lopsided separation agreement, as well as the federal law violation. He called the company lawyer about the problems and the co. lawyer had to submit to my lawyer’s superior draft of the agreement that included no suing of me in the future because of the company’s willful ignorance of the violation.

    Tips from my lawyer:
    1) Find out who will administer the benefits after an employee leaves the company. Oftentimes, the HR will have them transferred to a third party administrator.
    2) The separation agreement must be mutually beneficial to both parties. Another company from which I was laid off at one time, does this well.
    3)Do not agree quickly to arbitration hearings which could be held out of state. If the company wants to pursue this, get a lawyer.

    One of my tips:
    Talk to the unemployment agency, if you need to have UI, while dealing with the company. You’d be surprised at how well informed and saavy thay are in giving perspective.

  6. I got caught in a slimy corporate episode where our manager was deposed by a politically savvy, but inept manager.
    After a year of harassment by our new manager, I called their bluff, by informing them that I had consulted an employment lawyer who assured me that they were guilty of age discrimination. He also stated that in 30+ years of practice, he seldom saw an international corporation screw up so badly.
    When I informed the young and inexperienced HR manager that they needed to cut the crap and fix the problem per my instructions, I was kicked off the site and fired over the phone three days later.
    Almost immediately after the takeover and seeing that they were in over their heads, I started keeping very detailed daily logs of all the interactions between myself and my semi retarded supervisor. Later, this made the nuts and bolts of filing the EEOC suit very easy.
    I rejected their separation offer and sued them for age discrimination. I knew that victory was mine when I started getting letters from their contract employment lawyer who constantly mangled the most basic facts.
    Long story short, they settled in mediation six months later for five times their initial offer. I only settled because it is very hard to get an EEOC case to a jury trial where my lawyer would have had them for lunch.
    At the end of the day, the new manager was fired and my ex supervisor was stripped of all personnel because of this ruckus.
    Ignorance and incompetence were noticed and dealt with by more senior managers.

  7. @felix: Thanks for sharing your very instructive story. Big employers tend to think they are too big to be sued by puny employees. I agree that key to your win was your documentation. Too often, people don’t want to be cynical, so they don’t document. Docs win the day.

    @Been there: It’s hard for people to turn to an attorney. They just don’t want the controversy or to face legal bills. That’s why it’s important to at least consult with a good employment lawyer, to understand the options. That need not cost much. Consider how much your career is worth. Great tips, by the way! I cover this topic (exiting) in loads of detail in “Parting Company: How to leave your job.”

  8. I agree that it is often worthwhile to consult with an employment attorney. Often, the initial consult is free or the cost is low, and since every person’s situation is different, it is a good idea to find out your rights and liabilities, what the law is, and where you stand. Whether you choose to go forward and file a complaint or sue is another matter.

    It IS hard to turn to an attorney, as Nick noted. And often, the law favors the employer. But when companies and agencies egregiously violate the laws and no one complains or sues, employers get away with it, and the behavior usually gets worse, not better.

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