Changing Jobs: How to Gracefully Exit Your IT Job
New employees often have a well-deserved reputation for being bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. They're excited to have a new job, they embrace the company's culture, and they're often eager to learn. At the other end of the timeline, though, it's a bit more challenging to stereotype how someone leaves a job because there are virtually innumerable circumstances under which this can happen. Consider the following three examples:
- You've been selected for promotion within your current company.
- You've found a job elsewhere and are leaving on friendly terms.
- You're being laid off or fired.
The mental and emotional circumstances surrounding those three situations couldn't be more different, and this would be reflected in your attitude if any of these scenarios happened to you. The specific actions you take in each one are going to be tailored to fit what's happening, so discussing precise exit strategies would be practically worthless to most people.
In this article, we'll focus more on the principles that should govern how you can (and should) gracefully exit your IT job, regardless of the scenario.
Principle #1: Your Reputation is Worth More Than Your Ego
Even in the best of circumstances, it isn't uncommon to walk away from a job nursing some negative feelings against a former coworker or supervisor, and occasionally against an entire company. Your natural human tendency is to, at the very least, fantasize about ways you can pay them back for whatever it is that caused you to suffer.
Perhaps they were unfair to you and gave a promotion or new job opportunity to someone who was less well-deserving. Maybe they were cruel and unjust in the way they treated you. It's possible someone was arrogant and had an abrasive personality. Whatever the case, it's completely natural to experience the desire to get back at them in some way, and, as an IT professional, you're almost certainly in a position to do something that could cause cascading adverse consequences.
As vast as the IT world is, your reputation will still precede you. Even from a pragmatic perspective, the best possible outcome you could hope for is a fleeting sense of gratification as whoever is punished gets what they deserve. The benefit to you is only temporary, but the cost is long-term: the repercussions of negative behavior on your part could follow you for the rest of your career.
Consider the sensitive nature of systems you could be asked to work on down the road, no employer wants to hire someone who has abused their privileged access for personal gain. Perhaps you want to move into the cybersecurity realm in the future; it may be difficult to convince someone that you're worth the risk. Even though there's a small chance of it, you could eventually find yourself in a position where you're reporting to the same person in another company, and your options for leaving might be limited. Whatever the case, even if you've been thoroughly embarrassed, it isn't worth attempting to get even.
Principle #2: Invest in Your Future
Imagine that you've been asked to train your own replacement with the knowledge that you'll be let go at the end of the training period. It's difficult to imagine a corporate situation that is more disincentivizing: success literally equates to you losing your job. It would be natural to, at the very least, consider doing a subpar job and simply wait for the company to reap the fruit they've sown. However, it's far more advantageous for you to go a different route.
Consider two possible outcomes. First, let's assume that your replacement is an IT sponge: he's thirsty for knowledge, eagerly asks questions, and demonstrates a genuine desire to learn the ins and outs of your particular systems. This is very likely someone who is going to have a long, productive career in IT. How do you want him to remember you?
Will you be the person who barely gave him the time of day and set him up for the next year of struggling to figure things out on his own, or will you be the individual who took time to train him well so that he was fully equipped for the task at hand? We all remember mentors who took us under their wing, for however brief a period, and demonstrated genuine interest in helping us succeed when there was no apparent benefit to them. Be that person.
The second potential outcome is that your replacement is subpar. At best, he's content to do his job and go home at the end of the day: he doesn't seek to develop his skill set further or to continue growing and learning. IT is such a rapidly advancing career field that if you don't at least keep pace, you'll be left behind rather quickly. Whether it takes a few weeks or a few months, a replacement of this caliber will fail, promptly causing your former company to come to terms with your value. On more than a few occasions, we've heard of employers hiring back workers they let go just a few months prior — and now the former employee is in an enviable negotiating position to ask for a respectable raise for coming back.
If you give your best, the worst outcome for you is a few weeks of wasted effort. Remember, though: you never know who is watching. Giving your best is a direct investment in your future.
Principle #3: Remember That Nothing is Permanent
You could be leaving your job for any number of reasons, from pursuing a more lucrative opportunity with another company to being replaced by a cheaper source of labor by your current employer. While these circumstances typically feel permanent, things are rarely that simple in the world of IT.
Your new employer could experience a drastic change and begin layoffs with the newest employees, which would, of course, include you. Your former company could decide that their new arrangement isn't working out and reach out to you, asking for you to come back, with the offer of a raise to make the opportunity more appealing. Regardless, it's always best to keep doors open and bridges unburned.
One of the techniques we advise people to do is to conduct a series of informal exit interviews with coworkers, supervisors, and people you've supported in your IT role. Begin by asking them what they think you did well: it's always more comfortable for people to start on a positive note than a negative one, where they're less likely to be completely candid. Continue from there and request feedback on things you could improve on. Phrasing is critical here: if you ask something like, "what did I do wrong?" or "how were you disappointed in me?" then you're probably not going to get actionable feedback. Wording your question in a non-confrontational way shows people that you're looking for constructive feedback so you can improve.
The most important thing you can do here is not to react negatively. Don't argue, don't offer explanations, and certainly don't tell others why you think they're wrong. This immediately puts people on the defensive and minimizes the benefit you can receive. If anyone has a negative perception of your work, you'd be surprised at how quickly they can change their opinion if they're given an opportunity to express any negative feelings they have toward you honestly. This can turn someone from a potentially poor referral to a possible ally.
Once you've allowed them to express themselves, ask if they'd be willing to be a job reference for you in the future. You should already have a robust list of references at this point, so your goal isn't necessarily to bolster that — instead, what you're doing is eliminating potential sources of conflict down the road.
Always Do the Right Thing
Your overall goal should be to exit your IT job under the best possible circumstances. Leave your team and supervisor in good shape to continue without facing major hurdles you could have prevented. Reestablish good working relationships with your peers and supervisors to foster the most positive career conditions you can.
When in doubt about any particular situation, always default to doing the right thing. Consistently acting in this way will reap long-term benefits that can last for decades beyond your current job.