How Not to Burn Your Bridges in the Workplace

We once had a boss who, when an employee quit, was known to respond by saying, “I didn’t like you anyway” or by kicking the person out of the office. When it came time for us to turn in our resignation, we were petrified. So we made a case for why it would be better in the long run for us to get experience elsewhere so perhaps we could come back to the company in the future and be an even better asset. Guess what–it worked–and we’re still in touch with our former employer years later.

There are, of course, circumstances in which maintaining a friendly relationship with a former boss or employee is challenging (e.g. when a staffer stole business from the company; when a boss fired you without cause; when someone was verbally abusive or backstabbing when you worked together or was unethical in the workplace). However, in most cases, you can–and should–try to stay on good terms whether you’re the one leaving or being left. Why? Because it’s a small world and you never know when professional paths will cross again. 

Here’s some advice for how to avoid burning bridges in the workplace:

1. Don’t take it personally. Whether you’re a manager whose staffer just gave notice or you’re a victim of downsizing, try not to take it to heart. It’s not easy (particularly when you’ve just lost your job) but as friendly as you may be with coworkers, bosses or direct reports, you must remember that it’s business first. If a staffer decides to leave for another job, it’s probably not about you. Maybe he or she was burned out, found a great opportunity or was simply ready to move on. Whatever the case, wish folks well in their next position. Who knows? It may lead to business with their new companies or they may send you a fantastic candidate to replace them. On the flip side, we’ve had to lay off employees whom we considered real friends and it was the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do–we’re sure it was just as tough (if not more so) for them. But because we delivered the news with candor and compassion and offered to give them a reference, we’re still in touch with these people today. When we had to let one woman go because she simply wasn’t up to the job, we provided constructive feedback that could help her in her future career.  And, in fact, it did: She just landed a terrific new job. Instead of taking her firing as a personal attack, she took our advice into account and it paid off.

2. Badmouthing will get you nowhere. As tempting as it is to talk about your former boss being a jerk or how lazy and unappreciative a staffer was when she worked for you, keep it to yourself (or share it with your spouse or mom, not the general public or even your current colleagues). While it may be true, speaking ill of others will only make you look bad. In fact, a recent Harris Poll found that 35 percent of HR professionals discounted candidates who were caught badmouthing past employers on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. How will your remaining staffers feel if they hear you slandering a former employee? What if you dis a former colleague and then that person gets hired at your company, maybe even as your supervisor? Whenever we interview someone and they speak negatively of their current or former boss, it’s a real turnoff. What will they say about us if we hire them and then they leave to go elsewhere?

3. You never know when you’ll meet again. We reference this above but the fact is, while you may think your paths won’t ever cross with an old boss or employee with whom you had it out, it’s likely that they will. Or that you’ll connect with them again through others, particularly in the era of LinkedIn and Facebook, whether you want to or not.  In most industries, the same people move around from company to company and tend to know one another. If you run into your mean former employer or that entitled, snotty past assistant, take a breath, smile at her and say hello. You don’t have to be best friends (and it’s unlikely that you ever will be) but there’s no reason to be rude.

4. You want a good reference. And lastly, you want as many people saying positive things about you in the workplace as possible. Even if you quit to take another job or got laid off from one, you may still be able to ask for a recommendation for future jobs. If you conduct yourself in a professional manner, stay focused until your last day (i.e. not “checking out” in the last two weeks of your current position) and leave on good terms (e.g. sending a thank you note to your boss, providing a detailed exit document for your replacement), you should be able to secure a reference letter from your employer or, at the very least, have them say that you were a class act in your final days with the company.

Are you still in touch with former staffers or bosses? Did you ever leave on bad terms and how did that affect your career? Please share your comments with us here, on Facebook or Twitter (@bestpublicist).

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