How to resign from a job without burning bridges

Unhappy at work and ready to move on? Learn how to make a smooth exit and part on good terms, even in the middle of a pandemic.

Thanks to COVID-19, people have had a lot of time to reconsider what’s important to them this year, including their careers.

In fact, over a third of Aussies have either quit or are planning to quit their jobs in 2021 as they chase new dreams, go after their true passions, or change industries out of necessity. The media has started calling this movement The Great Resignation.

If you’ve had a similar epiphany about the direction of your own career, you’re probably wondering how to leave your job without burning any bridges, especially given how workplaces have changed over the last two years. It’s common to feel guilty about the situation you’ll be leaving behind, and to delay resigning for that reason. But it is possible to make your exit gracefully.

1. Set yourself up for a successful departure

Research your resignation notice period. Before speaking to anyone, look at your employment contract to find out how much notice you’ll need to provide. Generally, the longer you’ve been employed, the more notice you’ll need to give. This will vary depending on your role and industry.

In terms of your resignation notice period, most workplaces require:

  • One weeks’ notice for up to a year of service.
  • Two weeks’ notice for one to three years of service.
  • Three weeks’ notice for three to five years of service.
  • Four weeks’ notice for more than five years of service.

Remember, if you’re not sure about your resignation period or your rights, you can find everything you need to know by visiting the Fair Work Ombudsman website and reviewing your employment contract.

If you know handing over your job will be complicated, or the company is stretched right now because of the pandemic, then you can offer more notice than strictly required. The business will appreciate your consideration, which will help you end things in a good place. 

Use any paid annual leave to your advantage

Many people choose to take paid annual leave for part of their notice period because they need a break before starting their next role, or they want to avoid awkwardness with their co-workers. Don’t feel like you can’t request this. You can do it in a way that won’t alienate the business.

For example, you could give them extended notice to help make the transition easier, in exchange for a final week off.

Speak with your manager

There’s no doubt this needs to be a face-to-face (or screen-to-screen) conversation, which can be a nerve-wracking prospect.

Check your manager’s calendar and look for a time that isn’t sandwiched between other meetings. You don’t want them to be preoccupied or rushed when you break the news.

If you need to request a virtual chat because your organisation is still working remotely, try to anticipate things that could disrupt your conversation, like noisy garbage truck collections or your housemate’s 12pm virtual fitness class.

It can be tempting to resign last thing on a Friday, but resigning on a Monday or Tuesday afternoon can help things go more smoothly. For a start, you won’t ruin your manager’s weekend by giving them two days to stew on your decision. They’ll be in a more positive, solutions-driven headspace early in the week, which will make it easier for them to adapt to the idea that you’re leaving.

2. What to say when you resign

The first thing your manager will want to know is why you’re leaving.

Have a tactful answer ready. If you’ve genuinely enjoyed your time with the company and you’re leaving to pursue a new passion, let them know. They’ll be sad to see you go, but if you’re gracious about how they’ve helped you develop as an employee, then they should be happy for you.

If you’ve had a rough time, don’t use this as an invitation to vent about the business. There’s nothing wrong with offering constructive feedback if asked, but your goal at this point is to end things on a positive note so you can ask them to be a reference in the future. If you have grievances to air before you depart, ask for an exit interview between yourself and HR on one of your last days. 

Don’t see any opportunities for growth? Emphasise how much you’ve learnt and developed during your time with the business, but that you’re ready for a new challenge. Feeling burnt out and stressed? Explain that you’re making a lifestyle change.

You want to put a diplomatic spin on things without actually lying. Most of us are hyper-connected through LinkedIn, so the business will quickly notice if you’ve fibbed about your next move.

3. Formalise things with a letter of resignation

Keep your letter to the point. Reiterate when you'll be finishing up, thank the business for the opportunities they've given you, and explain how you’ll be able to help with next steps.

The Balance Careers has some fantastic resignation letter templates to get you started.

4. How to handover work after resignation

They say first impressions matter, but last impressions matter too. Many industries in Australia and people talk. Make sure your manager and your colleagues remember how cooperative and professional you were in your final weeks, because you never know when you might cross paths again.

Work with your manager on a transition plan, and do everything you can to facilitate handover meetings, write up detailed notes and train your replacement.

Though you might feel like it, now isn’t a time to slack off at home or gossip about the business with your co-workers. It’s possible you’re going to be leaving them in a less than ideal situation without you, and sharing your gripes is only going to rub that in.

Being a team player until the end is the best way to make a graceful exit.

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