Work It Out

The secret to quitting your job without burning bridges

Dear Work It Out,

I am preparing to resign from my job at an engineering firm. I've been there for five years, after my boss at our previous employer left to start his own company and recruited me to join his team.

A month ago, a former colleague encouraged me to apply for a vacant position at our old company, saying they wanted me back. I applied and accepted an offer of employment last week.

My question is this: When I tell my boss, should I mention that I'm returning to my old job? I know he will find out anyway, and I would rather him learn the news from me than someone else.

I am also anticipating major shock and anger from him. The last three people who resigned didn't get to stay their two weeks. My boss immediately escorted them out of the building, even though their resignations (in writing and in person) were extremely professional and respectful.

Because my boss is a very powerful and wealthy individual, I am worried when he finds out he will call someone important and try to sabotage my new job before it even starts.

Please help! I don't want to burn bridges.

Quitting a job is never easy, even if you can't wait to get out of there. It's emotional, and there are relationships to preserve. After all, business circles can be surprisingly small.

I've been on both sides of this one, as an employee and a manager, and there are a few things you can do to exit gracefully.

First, you want to reduce the element of surprise. You've worked with your boss for over five years and invested yourself in his venture, so he may not see this coming. You're essentially dumping him out of the blue and running off with his ex. So yes, he absolutely should hear it directly from you rather than through the grapevine.

If this is the first conversation you've had about your unhappiness, it's only natural for your boss to be surprised, disappointed and, yes, even angry. It may feel like a betrayal by you and the former colleagues who poached you.

In this situation, the No. 1 thing managers want is for their employees to give them a chance to make it work and persuade them to stay. Ideally, you would have been laying the groundwork for some time by communicating with your boss that you're looking for a new challenge, the next step in your career, or whatever the case may be. Then your boss wouldn't feel blindsided when you eventually tell him you'd like to move on.

If your dream job suddenly falls out of the sky, or if you're reading this too late, you can still give your boss a chance to make a counter offer. You aren't obliged to take it, of course, but it doesn't hurt to hear him out.

Since you've already accepted this new offer, at the very least, be gracious about your time at the company and transparent about why you want to take the new job. Explaining that it's an opportunity for you to learn something new, work on an important project, or pursue a passion will make it feel less personal.

You also want to give as much notice as possible — three or more weeks, depending on the scope of your role — and offer to create a transition plan.

Your boss may still ask you to leave immediately, and you should prepare for that too. Do you have everything you need? Do you know your paid-time-off policy, and how much you're owed?

Finally, I wouldn't panic about your boss sabotaging you in your next role. He can't directly impact your new job, and if he is so immature and spiteful to even try, it reflects poorly on him. He can, of course, always influence people's perception of you when they ask about you, so be thoughtful about how you handle yourself.

Experienced managers frequently deal with people quitting and should know not to take it too personally. But hey, we're human. If you're able to see things from the boss's point of view and provide ample time and explanation, an amicable work breakup is possible and better for everyone involved.

Have a pressing career concern or question? Email me anonymously at workitout@cnbc.com. Submissions may be edited for length and clarity.

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