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Don't Burn Your Bridges

By: Robert Half


At this early stage of your accounting career, your focus has been on gaining a solid education, and then going on to find and land your first good job in the profession. This is as it should be.

But it's almost inevitable that you'll one day leave your first job for another position. In most cases, you'll have elected to change jobs, although there might be situations in which you'll be asked to leave, not due to your performance but because of downsizing, a merger, or other reasons beyond your control. In either case, how you conduct yourself as a departing employee is extremely important, and could have a long-term impact upon your career.

"Don't burn your bridges" is an old, albeit wise piece of advice. While few would debate its pragmatic wisdom, it's often difficult to follow this rule when your departure is under less than amicable conditions. For instance, you may have decided to accept another position because your relationship with your immediate supervisor, or a colleague, was strained. Or you felt you were under-appreciated, or underpaid. You might have come to the conclusion that the firm was poorly managed or that working conditions were poor.

Whatever your reason for leaving the job, it's in your best interest to take the high road and do so with style and grace, departing in such a way that the image you leave behind with your ex-employer is a positive one.
Studies indicate that a majority of companies, large and small, conduct some form of exit interview with departing employees. In many cases it's a formal procedure, conducted by a human resources professional within the company. Smaller firms might use a more casual approach, perhaps a one-on-one meeting to determine your reasons for leaving. In some cases, the purpose of this meeting is to attempt to convince you to stay. However, it's more likely that the firm plans to use your parting comments to assess whether they could have done something differently to prevent you from leaving in the first place. Their goal, of course, is to prevent additional turnover in the future.

What sort of questions might you be asked during an exit interview? (Assuming that you're voluntarily leaving.)

The interviewer is likely to try to ascertain why you didn't feel your career goals could be realized at the company.

  • If you didn't feel your efforts and duties were rewarding, what steps might have been taken to make them more so?
  • What changes would you recommend be made in your job and responsibilities and in the company as a whole?
  • What will be different about the job to which you're going from the one you'd been holding?
  • What was your reason for your decision to change jobs?
  • Did you express to your supervisor and/or other members of management your discontent, the conditions that caused you to seek employment elsewhere, and how your career goals perhaps weren't being met?

That final question is an important one. Your reasons for leaving take on greater credence if you'd mad an attempt to improve your situation with your current employer before seeking employment elsewhere.

In answering all the questions, honesty is important---provided you don't go overboard in your criticism of the company, your supervisor, or other employees. The term "constructive criticism" comes into play here. Give the interviewer the benefit of the doubt. His or her motivation in conducting the interview is to better understand what caused you to leave, and to use your experience to better the work environment for other still employed there. Every company wants to limit turnover and keep their best employees. Focus on being helpful in that regard, rather than using the interview to vent any anger or resentment you might be feeling.

Unless you're honest in your answers, the interviewer, and by extension the company, won't gain the understanding they need to put into effect positive changes that will benefit other employees. There are those companies, of course, that will conduct exit interviews without any intention of using what they learn to improve working conditions. But they represent a distinct minority. The interviewer has a job to do. Concentrate on being helpful.

Keep your comments professional, and avoid personal attacks on anyone. If your decision to leave results from a personality conflict with a co-worker, it's perfectly all right to express your feelings. But there's nothing to be gained, and something to be lost, by dwelling on personal animosity that you may feel towards another person in the company. Your motive in going through the exit interview is not to punish or seek revenge. Remind yourself that your role is to help the company and your own career, not to achieve personal satisfaction.

Point out to the interviewer the good things about your job, and don't hesitate to mention ways in which your experience has been a positive one (if it has been).

Aside from an exit interview, use your final days with a company to cement relationships not only with friends that you've made, but also with any management that you interacted with during your employment. Leave the job on an upbeat note. Work hard, and be helpful, right up to the day you walk out the door. Be someone people are sorry to see leave. Promise to keep in touch, and do that. Thank others for their support during your days at the company. Be friendly with everyone, including those in lesser positions.

Never forget that the people you leave behind become part of your network, and might one day re-enter your professional life and prove helpful in advancing your career. When you decide to change jobs again in the future, these same people could be called upon to provide a reference for you.

Leave a job the right way. It pays.

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