In the February 17, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, we discuss how HR can make your exit tricky — and how to protect yourself.

The last word on leaving your job

When you leave a job, HR is often waiting for you with a few tricks. I call this exit gantlet the 6 gotchas of goodbye.

gotchaThis is the last of three special editions about what happens when it’s time to leave your job — and what to do to protect yourself. We’ve already discussed How to leave your job and how to Leave on your own terms. Then, of course, there’s the HR process that kicks in (and often kicks you!) when you’re on your way out the door.

Some HR departments are actually quite helpful to departing employees. Others are ready to exact a last pound of flesh from you. In any case, it pays to understand some of the gotchas and to be prepared — in the midst of an emotional ordeal — to escape intact.

These gotchas and my advice about how to beat them are from the 7-page Crib Sheet at the end of the PDF book, Parting Company | How to leave your job. The Crib Sheet is an extensive checklist compiled from my personal discussions with top HR insiders who know how the system works.

The 6 gotchas of goodbye

1. Don’t vent.

Your employer can use anything you say against you later. If you’ve resigned, avoid official discussion of your reasons, unless you want them in your personnel record. (See also pp. 46-47.) If you want to express yourself to your boss or to co-workers, do it off the record, casually, and preferably off-site at a restaurant or coffee shop. (See last week’s discussion about why you should not consent to an exit interview.)

2. Protect your future.

If you’ve resigned, don’t discuss where you’re going. (See also “Keep your future to yourself,” pp. 47-48.) Disclose it later, after you’ve started your new job, when there’s no possibility someone might try to nuke it. I once placed an executive whose resentful old boss contacted the new employer and made wild claims that almost resulted in withdrawal of the offer — until I completed an investigation and my client was satisfied none of it was true. Some employers feel betrayed and can behave irrationally. Don’t risk it.

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3. Protect your stuff.

Don’t leave your personal belongings exposed. Upon termination or resignation, you may not be permitted to retrieve them 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.)

Tip: Don’t presume you have privacy at work. What you consider private might actually belong to your employer. When you start your job, make it clear in writing what belongs to the company and what belongs to you. One of my HR buddies, who contributed some astonishing tips to the Crib Sheet, says her IT department will confiscate a departing employee’s company cell phone and e-mail account immediately — and will not return any contacts or other digital files, even if they are personal. Never take anything that’s not yours, but think and plan ahead to protect your stuff. (See p. 71, “Protect yourself.”)

4. Outplacement: Don’t settle.

Should you accept outplacement help, or should you negotiate for an even more valuable alternative? One of HR’s dirty little secrets discussed in the book is that some employers offer outplacement not to help you get a new job, but to protect the company from lawsuits.

Tip: Outplacement may be negotiable, as discussed in “Outplacement Or Door #2?”, pp. 28-30. Start by negotiating for as much as you want, and settle for as much as you can get. Don’t assume the company’s first offer is set in stone. You may be able to negotiate a cash alternative so you can hire the career coach of your choice — not one that reports to the employer. Or you can pocket the cash.

5. Document.

HR has an extensive personnel file on you, and it will document your departure. You should document the process, too. Without such records, you may be at a disadvantage if, later on, there’s any controversy about your exit. For example, 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 any legal action, your employer’s behavior may lead you to change your mind. The outcome may hinge on what kind of information you can provide to your lawyer. (See p. 69, “Benefits & documents.”)

Tip: Bring a pad to all meetings with HR during your exit process. Take lots of notes, including names, dates and times — especially about any promises made or terms discussed. Be polite, but make it clear you’re documenting. This puts HR on notice that you’re not a pushover. Your diligence could save you from a trick or two.

6. Don’t be in a hurry.

gotcha1Perhaps the biggest gotcha of the exit process is that HR is expert at it — and you’re not. HR will run loads of forms past you. Don’t be rushed. Make sure you understand every step of the process. For example, if you are given a letter of separation to sign, consider having an attorney review it first. Don’t forfeit your rights in an effort to exit quickly. Protect yourself. (See p. 27, “Do you need a lawyer?”)

(These 6 gotchas are from the 7-page Crib Sheet at the end of the PDF book, Parting Company | How to leave your job.)

Your employer’s HR office conducts an exit process to protect the company. It might be the friendliest, most responsible process possible. Or it might not. The risks to you could be enormous. Think of leaving your job like selling a house. There’s a written legal trail for good reasons: A lot is at stake and no one wants to get screwed. When you exit, be aware of the gotchas. And be ready to protect yourself.

How smooth was your last parting with an employer? Did you ever get surprised on your way out the door? What happened? What advice would you offer to the dearly departing?

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  1. I was fired from my last job about 20 minutes after I informed HR that I had consulted with an employment attorney about my situation there. The employment attorney’s finding was that the company had violated EEOC regulations, and I had an excellent case. In fact, he said that big companies seldom screw up that bad, and he would be happy to take my case if I wanted to sue. Someone in the HR organization took great offense that I had the unmitigated audacity to call them on their evil ways.
    So the case is winding it’s way through the EEOC, and I am eligible to sue.
    Before this came to a head, I downloaded all of my work from my laptop. That was a good move, since they confiscated the laptop and ID badge on my way out that day. I never had an exit interview or a conversation with anyone on the way out.
    So as I told them before that, we can do this the easy way or we can do it the hard way. They choose the latter.

  2. @Lance: Sometimes HR doesn’t take the prudent way. It over-reacts, usually because some HR manager or clerk doesn’t know what they’re doing and are in over their heads. The prudent way is to start by trying to come to an amicable resolution, if it’s possible. Then it’s off to the races. I wish you the best.

  3. Nick,
    I did try to proactively resolve the situation two weeks before this. The HR manager was young and inexperienced, but did not act on her own. The decision to fire me came from above hence the time delay. They were not able to understand that everyone does not roll over for them.
    My attorney response when I informed him of this was “Now, I have them on retaliation too”.

  4. * be prepared. No matter how good you think you are, how happy with your job, take time to have an exit plan. know what you’ll do ahead of time before you get tapped on the shoulder or you decide to bail. Think about it. When executives are recruited, they negotiate for and have included their exits, their severance, their stock, their perks, etc. While mere mortals can’t do this (signals intent to not stick around) you can do this for yourself and keep it to date, and lay groundwork
    * I’d worked a long time for one company, and developed the bad habit of relying on company computers & neglecting my home computer. I mean for my data base, contacts, useful information. I’m not the only one, as a recruiter I’ve met many people doing likewise, to the point where some don’t have their own computer. When the trigger is pulled, sometimes with very short notice & you’re “walked”. that’s all gone. Back up! back up! your stuff at home.
    * Outplacement…good point. there are varying packages. For instance, in one departure, though not an executive, I was given an executive outplacement package…one key difference…you had it until you landed.
    Outplacement has value. the company pays for it. Regardless of their motive, you get out of it what you put into it. Take everything coming to you when you leave. Take it and don’t cop an attitude. Typically only about 1/3 of people use their outplacement…period. no negotiating for something of like kind. It’s because they’re mad and they fix their company by blowing it off. Mistake. Much of outplacement is the same, but I’ve been through it 3 times & I always pick up some good tips, but more important, good additions to my network. People do land, and when they now know an insider
    * Be professional. Save your venting for the gym and burn it off. I’ll give you a good example why. My son just lost his job. 1 of 4 all working remotely from home, so this was done by phone. The other 3 vented, begged, pleaded. He immediately did a professional hand-off. project status, recommendations etc. His boss told him he was the exception and immediately started trying to find him something else. It’s a small world professionally. That boss, hr person, etc can end up somewhere you want to end up, or be a good network addition. Do you want to be remembered for your professionalism, or for a rant?

  5. I sent something in last week that’s my favorite departure story. I’ll repeat it here for those who might need a laugh
    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.
    (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

  6. @Lance: The difference between an HR manager and an employment attorney is that one thinks s/he knows the law, and the other practices it. Where do I place my bet? :-)

  7. @Don: Like any other career service, outplacement can be a good thing if done by a good practitioner. Like the headhunting biz, however, outplacement is rife with failed HR executives trying to make a buck with doubletalk. In my Parting Company book, I tell the story of a major corp that admitted to me it paid a whopping $15,000 per head for outplacement services primarily as an insurance policy against litigation from former employees. Much of outplacement is canned material. That’s my two bits. I think most people would do better taking the cash and spending it on a carefully selected solo practitioner.

  8. Re #6, the bank who fired me w/o cause & notice tried to get me to sign their letter of resignation which they had prepared. DO NOT SIGN as this is an attempt to deny unemp. comp. as the employee supposedly “resigned”. When fired w/o cause they are not in a position to deny benefits for which they are responsible. Just another example of unethical behavior.

  9. @Nick as I said I’ve gone through outplacement 3 times with 3 different companies. And you’re right, mostly cookie cutter formula process. But there are a lot of people who know absolutely know nothing, nothing about basic job hunting even writing a resume. Whatever the motives of the company it’s still a resource.
    But the best value was a side benefit. Most people blindsided in losing a job, most likely were negligent in their networking. too busy. Outplacement is a great tool to start building a network with someone footing the bill to bring large #s of people together. Overall there’s a limit to hanging around with unemployed people…but people land, & when they instantly have inside contacts, in addition to the contacts of the people you meet in outplacement.
    In my case, one job I got was via another guy in outplacement who landed before me, and walked my paper, another instance was an outplacement buddy who connected me to a recruiting manager who later brought me aboard.
    It’s something to leverage

  10. @Marilyn: being fired without cause and notice is not illegal. In my state (MA), we have “at-will employment”, which means that you can be fired for any reason or NO REASON unless you are a member of a protected class (think race), but then the burden of proof is on you to prove that your former employer fired you because you are black, e.g. Most employers are too savvy these days to tell you that you’re being fired because of the color of your skin, and thus it becomes very very hard to prove (and very costly, without a good guaranteed outcome for you even if you go to trial). The flip side of at-will employment means that you can also quit for any reason or no reason. There are exceptions–if you have an employment contract, then the terms for termination might be quite specific as to what they can be and the same goes for if you decide to quit.

    I think every state in the U.S. or almost every state is an at-will employment state.

    So the bank who fired you without cause were fully within their rights to do so, provided that you did not have an employment contract with them.

    But you are correct–regardless of whether you are fired for cause or without cause, if your employer fires you, you are eligible to collect unemployment, but if you quit/resign, then you are not eligible for it.

    And yes, that is just another example of unethical behavior. Sometimes they’re smarter, and they’ll do all kinds of dastardly deeds to force you out, including making it as hard as possible to do your job, giving you duties for which you have not been trained nor have the expertise, bullying, and more.

    Sometimes you might be able to claim that you worked in a hostile environment, but this too can be very difficult to prove. An employment law attorney could help you sort out whether you have a good case or not.

    @Lance: your lawyer is right: most big employers usually aren’t that stupid, usually because they have highly paid attorneys either as in-house counsel or on retainer to advise them re their actions. But some just don’t get it, or worse, they let their HR depts. advise them on legal matters, and that is where, as Nick noted, the problem lies. Unless that HR employee is also a licensed attorney, HR shouldn’t be dealing with legal matters. Leave it to the experts.

  11. There was the time half the office was downsized when the company lost a major client. We all met in a conference room. HR was direct and honest. Specifically said to use unemployment as the company would not contest.

    Only regret was that I had to come back to the office to pick up all my cool “stuff” that I used to decorate my cube. I made a point never have so much “stuff” in my office cube forever after. I went with cobra insurance – not sure if there was a better, cheaper option in 2001.

    Years later I was fired from a different job. I felt that things had gone south so I had removed all items from my cube beforehand. At the termination meeting HR didn’t say anything about unemployment insurance. I didn’t think to ask. I filed, was approved and then later the company contested. I had a good job by then but I thought it was petty of them to contest. At least I made them pony up good money to file a lawsuit. That company is still not considered a good place to make a career.

  12. @Marybeth: My comment made no mention of at will employment being “illegal”.

  13. @Marilyn: Nope, you didn’t. And employers in an at-will employment state can still fire you without cause. Fairness and legality have nothing to do with it.

    Funny, though, how some employers react as per posters’ comments and in Nick’s Q&A. If they fire you without cause, you’re not supposed to take it personally because it is “just business”. But if you decide to quit, then some HR depts. and managers react badly. It is still “just business”, even though the shoe is now on the other foot.

    @don: thanks for your comments–I learn a lot from you!

  14. I’d add one more rule for those leaving voluntarily. Don’t get guilt tripped/bamboozled into thinking you owe them more than two weeks’ notice. That is the professional standard, and it makes sense to give them some time to start planning for your departure. There also may be cases where you want to stay longer to finish up a project. But ultimately, no employee is indispensable, and if you are, that’s the employer’s fault for not taking care of an indispensable employee.

    Again, if you want to stay longer, go ahead, but you don’t owe them (and you do owe your new employer a timely start date). So better to just stick to the plan and tell them up front, “I am resigning. My last day will be two weeks from today.” Then spend those two weeks being thoroughly professional (unless they themselves are being unprofessional, in which case you can suggest moving up your departure date).

    No matter how much they complain, no matter how much guilt they throw on you, they’ll survive.

  15. I’m about to quit from my 10+ year position due to the continuing denial of my requests for staffing. My small company is run by what I would consider a marginally incompetent CEO and CFO that have made a point of pushing people far beyond reasonable expectations to maximize their profits and minimize any expenses. The CFO has actually said to my face that he thinks I am exaggerating the need and that he sees no reason to hire when everything is “being handled”. It is being handled only because I am working 60-80 hours a week to get everything done. He snorts and walks away when I tell him this.
    I’m done as soon as I can find something else, and I have no intention of giving them a minute’s notice when I leave. This may be considered bad form to some people, but I honestly feel like management here deserves no better. I have been killing myself to make everything work with a ridiculously small staff. I am now in my late 50’s and my health is really starting to decline because of the constant stress. I actually had a mild heart attack a while back on a Friday evening, and management was unhappy that I took a day on Monday (one day!) off to rest and recover – without prior authorization. This is typical and just another example of the general lack of respect for the employee as a person instead of just a raw capital expenditure.
    As soon as I can secure another position somewhere, I am going to take my coffee mug (the only thing in my office that is mine) and leave. A note will arrive to HR and management at the EOB on that Friday that I am leaving as of that moment. I will not embellish in the resignation. It will be just a single sentence.
    I fully expect them to try and avoid paying for my 4 weeks of vacation that has been accrued (that they consistently refused to allow me to take).
    I know that this will probably impact the other people at the company more than upper management (who won’t care at all). However, I am to the point where I no longer have any interest in killing myself to help a company that treats me with nothing more than disrespect. Sometimes just walking away is the best response, in my opinion.

  16. I am in a horrible situation here, have damning evidence that my current employer has been actively hacking my home PC, phone (owned by me) and other digital devices. Not sure why but submitting pages I frequently visit (ie reddit, NSF) to ISP and having them selectively blocked is Orwellian and illegal under the Computer Misuse Act 1984.
    None of the above was done in work time or with their equipment, and even was not allowed to fill in two important forms on their machine in order to get around their lousy Javascript design that caused it to crash on browsers other than Google Chrome.
    Is this grounds for unfair dismissal if they then terminate my contract for non-signing or some other sneaky “we can’t be bothered so shoot the messenger” method?