The art of resigning: When and how to leave your job

It’s reckoned the average Brit changes employer every three to five years (it’s 4.6 years in the US where they’ve done the number-crunching). Which means most of us will decide to hand in our notice several times during our working life. Make sure you do it the right way, at the right time and for the right reasons.  

Good reasons to resign?

There could be many valid reasons – positive and negative – pushing you towards the exit: perhaps a change of personal circumstances, an unmissable career opportunity, or a sincere desire to try something different. These can all be powerful motivations to move on.

So too can a nightmare boss, a lack of promotional prospects, stress and demotivation. These aren’t necessarily bad reasons to resign. The question is whether it’s just a bad week or symptoms of a more chronic problem, because the last thing you want to do is quit in the heat of the moment.

Make your decision part of a positive game plan, not a knee-jerk reaction. Because leaving a job (where we spend half of our waking life) inevitably involves some level of emotional and social upheaval and is never a decision to be taken lightly. Here are a few useful questions to ask yourself before handing in your letter of resignation:

  • Why do I want to leave? Make sure it’s a positive statement about the future (e.g. to seek a new challenge; earn more money; work for myself; have more time to do what I love; etc.) instead of a negative comment on the present (‘I hate my manager’).
  • How will I get where I want to go? Chances are you don’t have your dream job already lined up, so you’ll need to identify a series of manageable, achievable steps that get you steadily closer to it. Maybe you need to train or retrain, or get some work experience. Go through all your options methodically.
  • Is there any scope to get nearer to my goal in my current job? Unless you plan to change career tack completely, it could be worth having a conversation with your manager to see how your role could develop in the direction you want. Even if you are already set on going, make sure you take full advantage of any relevant training and development opportunities you won’t have after you leave.
  • Can any problems be fixed if you stick it out? Are others in the same boat as you? If there's a union where you work, can you address it through that? If there isn't, can you do something about your problems by getting organised with colleagues?
  • What will I gain – and lose – by quitting? Carefully weigh up the pros and cons of leaving in terms of the time, money and opportunities you will subsequently have to pursue your career ambitions.
  • When is the best time for me to leave? For example, do you need to save up some money first? Or is there a project to complete first that will look good on your CV?

As well as helping you to stress-test your true motivations for leaving, this process of questioning can also make your plans more ‘real’ and stop you making a different kind of (bad) choice – i.e. endlessly procrastinating and never changing jobs!

How to hand in your notice

Once your decision is made, the manner of your exit is important. If you have become disillusioned with your current job, it is important to resist venting your frustration openly. Unless you intend to change careers and move to the other side of the world, you won’t do your future prospects any favours by burning your bridges!

You will want as good a reference as possible from your manager. And you never know when you will bump into ex-colleagues at networking events or need to call in professional favours at a future date. Keep work relationships as cordial as possible:

  • Resign gracefully. Arrange a face-to-face meeting to hand your resignation letter over personally. Your boss will appreciate the courtesy (if not necessarily your decision).
  • Be helpful. Your replacement and colleagues will need appropriate training and handover notes from you. Make sure you make it as easy as possible for them to manage after you’ve gone. Showing willing will win you friends (and may help you negotiate a shorter notice period).
  • Give colleagues your contact details so you can stay in touch – you never know when or if you may need them in the future.
  • Resist the temptation to brag about your new job, particularly if morale is poor at work. This will probably make some co-workers feel bad and could even give them cause to resent you.

There’s lots more advice about leaving your job here on workSMART, including detailed information on leaving rights, HR processes and references.