There are all sorts of reasons to leave a job. Maybe you’ve found a new and exciting company you want to work for. Maybe your dream role has just opened up somewhere else. Maybe you want to switch fields or careers. Maybe you’re leaving the country. Maybe you’re burnt out and need a break. Maybe your current workplace is a toxic mess and you want to escape! But whatever the reason, there is one thing that stays for sure: you have to tell your boss you’re quitting.
Depending upon your relationship with your boss, this can feel quite intimidating or nerve-wracking. Or maybe you’ve loved your workplace so much that it feels tragic and overwhelming to leave, even if you know it’s the right move. But leaving your workplace doesn’t always mean the end of your relationship with your boss, and even if you’re hoping it does, it’s smart to end things on as good a note as possible. Here are our tips for handling the conversation where you tell your boss you’re leaving.
1. Follow your contractual responsibilities
Now is not the time to start messing around with contracts or playing it fast and loose with the internal HR regulations at your workplace, let alone trying to wheedle more or less notice period. When you make the decision to leave your workplace, consult your contract carefully to find out what you are expected to do. How much notice does your company require? Do you need to submit a two weeks notice letter in writing, or is a formal conversation sufficient?
At the same time, you don’t want to be robotic in your decision to leave. If you’re only required to submit a notice letter, it’s polite to request an in-person meeting with your boss and let them know then, rather than dropping a bomb in their inbox. A simple question like “do you have fifteen minutes to talk this morning?” will help you arrange a time with your boss and probably give them their first indication that you’re changing your professional situation so that it doesn’t come as a shock.
A notice period is there to protect your company so that they don’t have to scramble to cover your role - but it’s also there to protect you. It ensures that your boss can’t guilt-trip you into staying longer than you want, nor tell you in a fit of temper to “leave right away”. (Depending upon your contract, you could agree to leave but say you will still expect the full salary for your notice weeks.) If you respect your contractual obligations, it ensures you’re leaving your workplace in a professional and responsible way.
2. Be calm and clear
The conversation where you tell your boss is leaving can be fraught for any number of reasons, whether you loved or hated the job. It’s a good idea to plan it out in your head beforehand or even practice it with a friend (who won’t spill the beans) rather than planning to wing it. This way you won’t get flustered, emotional, or confused, and you’ll have a good idea of what’s expected from you in the coming weeks.
In the conversation, you’ll want to manage a few things beyond the “I’m leaving!” announcement. You should outline your reasons for leaving (although you might wish to be diplomatic here - see below) and make sure that there’s a plan for the path forward. If your company hires someone to replace you, will you be expected to train them? Are there any projects you need to finish up before you go? What crucial information do you need to hand over so the company continues to run smoothly after your departure?
You never know when your paths will cross with your boss or another ex-colleague, so now’s the time to leave everyone with the best impression of you. Feel free to volunteer to take on extra tasks to make your departure as easy as possible for your colleagues and your boss. But don’t be bullied into staying longer than you’re contractually required, or taking on a stressful heavy workload to get everything done before you leave. It’s a fine line to walk, but one that will ensure you leave with your company and your reputation in the best place.
3. Keep it clean
If you’re leaving a workplace that you haven’t enjoyed working for, it can be tempting to do the George Constanza exit. At last, time to stop biting your tongue and tell your boss what you really think of them!
But you never know when you’ll need the good opinion of your boss. Sometimes things fall through at the last minute, and if you’re stuck in a situation where you need a reference or perhaps to extend your leave, you don’t want to create an unpleasant situation for yourself. If you’re staying in the same field, too, there’s a real chance that you’ll run into your boss again one day, and maybe you’ll need to be in their good books. It’s better to bite your tongue one last time, keep it civil and leave politely. In an exit interview, you might be asked for feedback on your workplace; give constructive feedback rather than personal (“I think we could work on our communication processes” vs “My boss is impossible to talk to and I hate them”), and make sure to highlight the things you’ve enjoyed about your workplace. Keep the emphasis on why the change is good for you - you’re ready to take a leap up in responsibility, you’re interested in the new company’s product, you’re ready for a change - rather than why you struggle with them.
If your workplace has been so hostile and awful that you feel like you have to have your say, give yourself a date in the future to do so. Decide something like, "One month into my new job, I’ll tell my old boss exactly where they can stick it." More often than not, you’ll find that the moment you’re out of that toxic workplace, you’re calmer and happier just not thinking about it at all. One of the dreadful things about working somewhere you don’t like is how much headspace it takes up, and once you’re free, you can enjoy all the time and energy you spend thinking about other things.
4. You can only control your own reaction, not theirs
Bosses are just people, with their own flaws and strengths. If your boss is irascible or unpredictable, you might be worried about how they will react to your news. And you might be right! Maybe they’ll take it badly, maybe they’ll throw a tantrum, maybe they’ll bemoan the fact that you’re leaving the “family”.
But these are all just their own emotions - that they are processing unprofessionally - and you can’t control their feelings, but only your response. Try not to let their mood impact your decision-making or personal happiness. Respond gently but firmly with something like, “I’m sorry to hear you’re upset, and I’ve enjoyed my time working with you too, but this is the right move for me.” At the end of the day, you’re not doing anything wrong: people quit their jobs every day. You have a perfect right to do so, and you should keep that right in mind throughout the conversation, no matter what your boss throws at you.
5. Remember your own motivation
If you’ve loved working for a company, it can be really hard to make the decision to leave. But save the emotional speeches and teary recollections for drinks after your final day. This conversation is time for you to stay true to your own professional growth and your decision to leave.
If you’re struggling to stay true to your own decision, it also makes it that much easier for a bad boss to guilt-trip you into staying. On the other hand, a good boss is perfectly within their rights to make you a counteroffer encouraging you to stay. You should be expecting this and have some idea of what your response will be.
The most important thing here is to have made up your mind completely about what your decision will be. There are three basic routes:
You’re leaving, you’re excited to leave, and nothing your boss can say will change that!
Actually, you’d rather not leave, but you’ve received such a good offer you have to present it to your boss. You’re hoping your boss will give you a counteroffer that matches or comes close to this new position so that you can stay, but you’re excited enough about the new job that you’re happy to leave if your boss can’t do that.
You’re excited about the new job, but you also love your old job. If your boss offers a good enough counteroffer, you’ll consider it.
The important thing to note about these three options is that aside from the first one, nothing is set in stone. Remembering your motivation doesn’t mean that nothing can change your mind. But it does mean that what changes your mind should be facts or distinct changes in your situation, rather than emotions. Know what you want, know what will make you happy to change your mind, and head into your meeting with certainty and strength!
With these tips in mind, the conversation to tell your boss you’re leaving can be important, but not overwhelming or terrifying. Most of all, remember that no one expects you to work for one company for the rest of your life. It’s both normal and natural to make the change - so all you have to do is handle that change as gracefully and professionally as possible.