How to Quit Your Job Without Burning Bridges

How to Quit Your Job Without Burning Bridges

By Rebecca Knight

Who hasn’t fantasised about walking into the boss’s office, saying: “I quit!” and then marching straight out the door? The rational side of you knows, of course, that that’s the wrong way to resign from a job. But what is the right approach? Who should you tell first? How much notice should you give? And how honest should you be about your reasons for leaving?

What the Experts Say

Chances are that you’ll get a lot of practice quitting jobs over the course of your career. The average worker today stays at a job for 4.6 years, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “People are more accustomed to the comings and goings of colleagues than in the past,” says Daniel Gulati, the coauthor of Passion & Purpose. “It’s all part and parcel of company life.” And yet, there will inevitably be some curiosity about your departure. “Colleagues may be trying to read you and understand why you’re leaving,” he says. Remember: “You set the tone.” According to Len Schlesinger, a professor at Harvard Business School and coauthor of Just Start: “The bookends — how you start and how you end — are the most important parts of any professional relationship.” The trouble is that people tend to spend a lot of time preparing for and strategising about their first impressions, and rarely give much thought to their last ones. Quitting your job for any reason — whether it’s because you’re deeply unhappy or you’re embarking on a new opportunity — “requires sensitivity and planning,” says Schlesinger. Here’s how to handle it.

Be flexible.

To leave an organisation with anything less than two weeks’ notice is simply “bad form,” says Schlesinger. And while two weeks is customary, you might consider “offering to work even longer if you haven’t already committed to a start date at another organisation,” he says. The higher up you are in an organisation the longer it will take to extricate yourself and possibly train the next person coming in so you may need to give closer to a month if possible. On the other hand, giving too much notice — more than three months, say — is not necessarily wise, says Gulati. “The moment you tell people you’re leaving, you’re perceived as an outsider,” he says. You likely won’t be invited to certain meetings, and team-bonding events will take on a different dynamic. “You don’t want to be hanging around too long.”

Tell your boss first.

Once you’ve decided to resign, the first person you should tell is your manager. The reason is obvious: you “don’t want your boss to hear the news from anyone else,” says Schlesinger. After you’ve revealed your plans, though, “you’re no longer in the driver’s seat,” he says. Decisions surrounding the nature and timing of your departure are best left up to your supervisor. You may, however, weigh in on how your resignation is communicated, according to Gulati. Will the news be announced in a team meeting? In an email? Are you responsible for telling key people in the organisation? “You want to establish that up front” to keep the rumour mill at bay.

Be transparent.

While you’re under no legal or moral obligation to reveal your next career move, it’s worthwhile to take the “long view” on this one, advises Gulati. “In this hyper-connected world, your [former coworkers] are going to know all about your new role and new company” the minute you update your LinkedIn profile. When you’re honest and straightforward about your plans, you “own the narrative,” he says. “The more transparent you are, the more likely you are to preserve and build on the relationships you already have.” Former coworkers are a crucial part of your network and you want to keep those relationships in tact.

Don’t gossip.

“There are no secrets and no off-the-record conversations in the workplace,” says Schlesinger. If you give different reasons for your departure to different groups — if your boss hears one story, for example, while your close colleagues hear another — expect that you’ll be Topic A at the water cooler. “Learn the essential lesson of being a politician: There is only one story, told one way, and you stick to it,” he says. “That way nobody can ever say they heard anything different.”

Be strategic about your time.

Regardless of your reasons for quitting, you have one final responsibility to your company — and that is to engender an “orderly and positive transition,” according Schlesinger. “Your only orientation [during your notice period] is to make sure you don’t leave your boss in a pickle,” he adds. To that end, you need to “collaborate with your boss,” suggests Schlesinger. Ask your manager for direction and close supervision on how you ought to tie up loose ends. After you leave, “you want your former boss and colleagues to feel nothing but positive about your professionalism,” Schlesinger says.

Express gratitude.

Even if you’re ecstatic to be leaving your job, you need to adopt an appreciative mindset about the position and people you’re leaving behind, says Gulati. As he points out: “Even in the worst situations, there are parts that you enjoy and colleagues you like working with. You need to be grateful for the things that went well.” Modest farewell gifts or thoughtful notes to your direct supervisor, mentors, and other people you worked with leave a good impression. If, however, you’re dealing with a supervisor or direct reports who are taking your departure personally by “acting emotionally or accusing you of disloyalty, you need to just chalk it up to collateral damage,” says Gulati. “It’s not productive to waste your time and energy trying to change their minds.”

Beware the exit interview.

It might be tempting to be brutally honest during your exit interview and offer up detailed information on everything that’s wrong with your company. But Schlesinger warns against it. “The exit interview is not the time to give the feedback you wished you had given while you were a full-time employee,” he says. His reasons are twofold. “First, you’re not guaranteed anonymity; it’s a small world. Second, your feedback is not going to change the organisation.” If you like your job and had a wonderful relationship with your boss but got a better offer, “feel free to talk about it, but don’t feel obliged,” he says. Gulati’s exit interview advice: “No venting. And no emotional conversations.”

Principles to Remember


  • Give at least two weeks’ notice and — if your schedule allows — offer to work longer to create a smooth and orderly transition
  • Collaborate with your boss to figure out the best use of your remaining days and how you should tie up loose ends
  • Be thankful about what you learned at your job and openly express gratitude to colleagues


  • Give different reasons to different people — stick to one story about why you’re leaving
  • Be dishonest or overly secretive about your next move — your boss and former colleagues will find out where you’ve landed soon enough
  • Divulge too much during your exit interview — it’s not the time to give detailed feedback and ideas for improvement

Case study #1: Take initiative to create a smooth transition

Nancy Twine had spent close to seven years at Goldman Sachs. She began her career in the commodities sales division, and was later promoted to vice president. But this spring, Nancy was at a crossroads. For the past two years, Nancy had spent nights and weekends pursuing a side project: a business selling natural shampoos and soaps inspired by a family tradition of making those products from scratch. “I finally made a decision: I was going to leave my job and focus on my business full time,” she says, adding that it was important to her that she leave Goldman on good terms. “I had learned so much over the years, and I had built a lot of strong relationships.”

She planned to give a month’s notice because she knew from experience that abrupt departures “cause turmoil” on a team. When the moment came, she was honest with her boss. “I said I was going to pursue an entrepreneurial venture in the beauty business —that it was something I’d been wanting to do for a while and that now was the right time.” Her manager took the news well but she did ask whether Nancy would be willing to extend her notice period by two weeks. Nancy agreed on the spot. “I knew I could spare the time and it would help smooth the transition.”

During her remaining six weeks at the bank, Nancy put together a detailed spreadsheet of all her accounts and went over this information in several meetings with her boss. “I wanted to be a team member until the very end,” she says.

Nancy left her job in April and today is the CEO of Briogeo Hair Care. She is also the youngest African American female to ever launch a line with Sephora, the cosmetics chain. “Even though what I do now is very different from my old job in finance, I use a lot of what I learned there in my day-to-day — how to be strategic, how to see a project through from start to finish, and how to communicate. “It was the right decision to leave but I am grateful to have worked there.”

Case study #2: Be open about your plans

When it was time for Ben Sullivan* to give his notice, he felt a mixture of giddy excitement and guilty dread.

On one hand, Ben was ecstatic to be leaving his company. Not only had he just landed his dream job at a well-funded San Francisco-based start-up, he was also happy to be rid of his old firm. His two-year tenure at the technology company had been frustrating. Ben reported to two different supervisors — one in HR and the other in legal. His managers did not get along particularly well and they often disagreed on company strategy.

On the other hand, Ben felt guilty about announcing his departure. He knew his absence would put his team in a bind — particularly with the holidays coming and his closest colleague soon going out on maternity leave. In light of that, he planned to give three weeks’ notice.

After he delivered the news to his first boss, she immediately tried to persuade him to stay. “I told her I was flattered but I wasn’t interested in more money,” he says. “I had already accepted an opportunity at another company. And when I told her where I was going, she was very supportive and told me it was a good fit and wished me well.”

His second supervisor’s response was underwhelming. “He just shrugged and asked me when my last day was,” says Ben. “He had always been a difficult person to work with, and his reaction was typical. It actually helped me feel that I made the right decision.”

When word got out that Ben was leaving, his colleagues from other business units were naturally curious. Ben was forthcoming but professional. “They asked a lot of questions about what I’m doing next and what perks I was getting,” he says. “They were happy for me.”

As his last days neared, Ben says he was prepared to offer constructive feedback to his bosses. He had specific ideas on how to improve the reporting structure of his position as well as advice on how they could more efficiently delegate responsibilities to his eventual replacement. “But no one asked,” says Ben. “It’s probably just as well.”

He starts his new job next month.

*not his real name

Rebecca Knight is a journalist who writes about all things related to the changing nature of careers and the workplace.

This article first appeared on the Harvard Business Review website.

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