Leaving Your Employer And Worried About ‘Burning A Bridge’? Here’s Some Advice To Calm Your Nerves

Sara Young Wang

Telling our employer we’re leaving them can feel stressful. Even if we’re at peace with our decision to leave, many of us are afraid of conflict and can dread having this conversation. We hope our employer will understand and everything will go smoothly, but we never really know how they’ll respond. Here are a few things to think about as you go into this interaction. They may seem like basic pointers, but when anxiety is running high we can forget the simplest things that can go a long way to reduce the potential for tension these conversations have.

Start by simply thinking through your departure from your employer/boss’s perspective. What could upset them or “burn a bridge”?

First, think through your leaving from a business perspective.

One of the top concerns an employer often has when an employee is leaving is how they will keep the business running smoothly. They hired you to perform a function and carry a workload and there’s the potential for stress – they will be scrambling to fill the gap – if your news leaves them hanging.

Ask yourself, “How can I help make my leaving less of a headache for my boss/employer?” If you can, be strategic in your timing and thoughtful of the workflow considerations. Maybe there is a break between client assignments when the timing would be better. Maybe you can offer more than the standard two weeks notice while they find a replacement. Or offer your willingness to help train or transition your work to another employee. I understand this might not be possible in all cases – you might just need to leave ASAP – but anything that can lessen the shock of the news and help your employer out can go a long way to create a graceful exit.

Second, think through your leaving from a human perspective.

If not “burning a bridge” is a concern, the way you communicate your decision to leave is going to be key. Whatever you say, think about how it may be received on the other side – ask yourself, “How would I feel if I were in my boss’s position hearing an employee say this?” Remember, they are human with feelings and egos. And they are continuing to invest their time and energy in your current company.
Tread lightly in saying anything that could be perceived as criticism or that you’re leaving for greener pastures. If you are going to enter into a discussion about what you’re planning on doing next, frame it around you and the things you want to pursue, not what your employer is lacking. A general guideline is to think about using “I” statements instead of “you” statements, which can come across as blaming or critical. For example, “I want to expand my experience in ___” rather than, “You don’t provide enough opportunities for me to do ___.” See the difference?

If it’s that you want to explore a different career path – something completely different that your employer could never offer – you could simply share this with them. It’s unlikely they would take this personally. It’s quite different than having to tactfully explain you are switching to a competitor firm.

If you are moving to a competitor firm, this is where things can obviously get tricky. Here, it can help to be specific about what is different about the opportunity – remember not better, just different – that aligns more with you and your specific goals. Maybe they offered you a chance to build a new business line, or cover a territory that is already covered at your firm. These things can help your boss/employer understand your decision to leave and that you are not directly critiquing their firm, but going to a place where there is a better fit or opportunities for you.

Have grace and gratitude

Lastly, make sure to be gracious, and express gratitude for your time at your current company. Even if this job has never been what you really want to do, or for whatever reason, you can’t stand working there anymore – don’t share this with them. Instead, thank and express appreciation to your employer for the opportunities they have provided (even if it’s only to show you want you don’t want).

Examine your fears

Remember, it’s ultimately out of your control how they will take your news. You can do what you can to help things go smoothly, but keep in the back of your mind that at the end of the day you’re not in control or responsible for their response. Try to confront your fears head on and ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Let’s say they do get really upset. Then what? Likely not much. Over time when things have cooled off, your relationship may recover. Or you might end up “burning a bridge,” but life moves on and in the big picture it likely won’t matter as much as you think it does right now.

See this as an opportunity for learning and personal growth

I also find it helpful to think about how many successful people have likely burned some bridges along their career journey. If you’re going to speak up for yourself, honor you and do what you need to do to create the life you want, you’ll have to learn to be ok with others sometimes getting upset with you. Take this as an exercise in standing in your own power.

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