Ask the Headhunter: How to leave your job without fear

Photo by Noel Hendrickson/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images.

Photo by Noel Hendrickson/Photographer’s Choice RF/Getty Images.

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979, and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade.

In this special Making Sense edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards, or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.

Question: I was recently let go without being given a reason. I believe it was because we had a disagreement. I felt my boss was too demanding and high strung, and he felt I was not aggressive enough. When I apply for jobs and they ask me what happened, what should I say? I have been saying, “I was let go without being given a reason, without any warning.”

Would it be better to say, “It was decided they need someone with a different type of background”?

Nick Corcodilos: Trying to explain why you were fired is almost always a losing proposition. I wouldn’t do it. I think the best, strongest position to take with a prospective employer is to be honest and to draw a line about the details — then don’t cross it.

First, honesty:

“My boss decided he needed someone with a different approach. He felt our views on how to do the job didn’t mesh, and I agreed with him. I’m looking for an organization that I’m compatible with.”

Next, you must draw a line. When the interviewer presses for the gory details, you need to firmly and very simply state that you don’t share gory details. Why would you give anyone reasons to reject you?

“The difference in our approaches was a matter of opinion, and we disagreed. But I don’t disparage the opinion of anyone I’ve ever worked for.”

Then, immediately skip ahead to what’s going to get you hired:

“My main concern — and why I am here — is how I can map my expertise and abilities to make your business more profitable. If I can’t show you how I can help you do that, then you should not hire me. If you’ll tell me what you’d like your new hire to deliver in the first three, six, nine months on the job, I’d like to outline a plan about how I’d do it. If anything is missing in my abilities, we should see that now. But I believe if we roll up our sleeves and talk shop, I can show you what I can do for you.”

Talk not about what you’ve done, but about what you will do for the new employer, and how.

Now let’s back up, because we need to help you avoid repeating this experience. When you realized you and your boss were seriously mismatched, you probably should have resigned long before getting fired. Whether you are fired, quit, or facing a downsizing, you need to consider a raft of issues in the process of leaving your job:

  • Can you volunteer to get laid off instead of getting fired?
  • Should you ask for outplacement, or is there something better you can negotiate?
  • If your imminent departure is by choice, should you in fact stay? Who in your company is most worth getting advice from?
  • Do you know which rules of the company will impact your departure? Have you checked?
  • Are there bonuses or benefits you might lose if you handle your termination or resignation the wrong way?
  • If you’re quitting, when should you tell your boss you’re leaving? Do you have a plan for dealing with a counter-offer?

As you can see, there’s a lot to the subject of “parting company” with your employer. This gets short shrift from career writers and advisers because it’s considered water under the bridge — everyone wants to talk about “what to do next.” The thing is, how you choose to handle leaving your job is largely up to you, and it can affect your prospects dramatically. Even if you get fired, you have choices. It’s important to know what your options are.

Whether you get fired or quit, never do an exit interview.

I have polled HR managers for over a decade. None can name one benefit of the dreaded exit interview for the departing employee, but I can name several serious risks. Whether you say complimentary things in an exit interview, or make critical comments and vent your frustrations, your words can be used against you.

Most obvious: Suppose you need to take legal action to get your final paycheck or a bonus you’re owed, or because you later realize you were discriminated against. Your employer can use your verbose comments to support its own case. Or, if someone later calls this employer to check your references, any negative comments saved to your personnel file might influence the quality of references you’re given.

Consenting to an exit interview just isn’t worth it.

HR managers argue that they need your candid comments if they’re to improve the company and their processes. But if that really matters to your employer, then HR should be asking you exit interview questions regularly, while you’re an employee, so you can benefit from any resulting improvements. These are just a few reasons why, when you’re leaving your job, the prudent response to an exit interview is, “No, thank you.”

Is it time to go?

You should be the best judge of whether it’s time to leave your job, before your employer decides for you. People often get fired because they don’t see signals that it’s time to go. It may be time to go when:

  • You’ve got no professional support. You’re the “top dog” in your department, and there’s no one to mentor you further. You start to stagnate, while everyone else comes to you for help doing their jobs.
  • You’re always ahead of your employer. You understand your work, your tools, the market, and trends better than your employer does, but no one listens to you.
  • You are isolated. There are too many walls between your job function and the rest of the company. You’re not allowed to put your head together with other departments to produce the best solutions. Everyone is isolated.
  • You’re not growing. Your employer doesn’t encourage continuing education and offers little, if any, training. They like you just the way you are, and they want you to stay that way.

Do you know how to resign?

Many people simply don’t know how to resign properly. This can be catastrophic. Get your ducks in a row before you do it.

  • Check your employer’s exit policy. You may be ushered out the door instantly, without being allowed to return to your desk. Find out how others have been treated, and check the written policy.
  • Never resign unless you have the new offer in writing. I’ve seen too many people treat an oral offer as bona fide, quit their old job, and find themselves on the street when the offer is never finalized or rescinded.
  • Get your stuff. Never take what’s not yours, but if you announce your departure too early, you may have to fight to get your belongings back. Plan ahead.
  • Resign in writing, one sentence only: “I, John Jones, hereby resign my position with ABC Company.” Sign and deliver to your boss with a copy to HR. Anything you say beyond that can be used against you by your employer. A resignation is business, not personal. Keep it simple.

The advice about issues to consider when quitting, resigning or getting downsized is from my PDF book, “Parting Company: How to leave your job.”

Dear Readers: Have you been fired or downsized? Did you quit for a better job? Ever deal with a counter-offer, or with an exit interview? Did something happen in the process that you didn’t expect or plan for? What’s your advice about the best way to leave a job?

Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “How Can I Change Careers?”, “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

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