How to leave your job without burning bridges

An employee with a box of personal belongings. Many international development professionals make frequent job changes to further their careers, and knowing how to leave a company gracefully will help you avoid burning bridges. Photo by: Erin Kelly / CC BY

The project-based nature of international development work means that many professionals make frequent moves to further their careers. But it can be difficult to orchestrate job moves that align with contract end dates and new project start dates. For example, when your three-year project is beginning to come to a close, it’s wise to begin a new job search. But what happens when you get a job offer before your project ends? You don’t want to leave your current employer in a lurch, but you also need to think about future job security. It’s in scenarios like these when you need to think carefully about how to exit one job to pursue another.

Here are 7 tips for gracefully quitting a job without burning any bridges.

1. Give as much notice as you can

Popular career advice often cautions against giving much more than two weeks notice. You may find yourself marginalized or risk your employer terminating your position before you are ready to leave if they find someone else to replace you. This may be the case in a standard, full-time home office position.

However, if you are working in the field in a project-based position, the more notice you can provide, the better. It’s very difficult and time consuming to recruit new hires for the field, particularly for positions that require a unique area of expertise. Projects with tight deadlines cannot afford to wait weeks or months for a replacement, and program goals will suffer from it. The more lead time you can give an organization, the more likely they will be to identify a suitable replacement and ideally have them train under you before your departure.

2. Help find your replacement

You likely know other professionals within your area of expertise and certainly know what is required to do your job well, so who better to help identify replacement candidates than you?  Recommend people you know who you think your employer should consider. Better yet, reach out to them and sell them on the job yourself. Making the transition as easy on your employer and colleagues as possible will help keep project goals on track. It will also protect you from a reputation as someone who cannot be counted upon.

3. Recommend internal promotions

Particularly if you are in a position of management where you oversee a team of people, consider whether any of them are ready to make that next step. If you think someone is ready to step up and take over your position, make that recommendation. This shows your employer that you are helping them manage a smooth transition and will undoubtedly build good will with your former colleague who will appreciate the opportunity to move up.

4. Help to advise your replacement, even after you start a new job

Sometimes timing doesn’t work out where you will still be around and available to train your replacement, particularly if you can’t provide ample notice and a new hire is not easily identifiable. However, offering to be available for questions or advice once a new hire is onboard is another great way to show the employer that you are not thoughtlessly abandoning ship. Even a simple phone call to provide some of that background information that maybe only you know can be a helpful gesture in smoothing over the transition.

You want to make sure you are realistic with the time you can actually provide, though. You will likely be busy getting acquainted with a new job yourself, but often just knowing you are available if needed can be enough to alleviate an employer’s concerns.

5. Create guides or background packets for your replacement

Many of us know how to do our jobs like the back of our hand, but very few of us document this anywhere. Everyone has their preferences for how to do things and it’s likely your replacement will want to carve their own path. But preparing documentation on any standard processes, background information or just a simple list of “things you should know” can be extremely helpful in onboarding a new hire and getting them quickly up to speed.

6.   It’s not “goodbye,” it’s “see you later”

International development is a small world. It is not uncommon for professionals to work with the same organization at multiple points in their career. This is why it is so important to make sure you are thoughtful in how you leave a position. You don’t want your exit to disqualify you from a future dream assignment.

Also, global development work is increasingly collaborative. Your former employer may just be the right strategic partner to help win funding at your new employer. Bringing these relationships with you to your new job will make you an even more valuable employee. Having a strong network is vital to not only helping you find future employment, but also to succeeding in your career today.

7.  Choose job changes carefully

While it is much more common to job hop in global development than other industries, you still need to be mindful of what your employment history will say to future employers. Most professionals can afford to have maybe one or two very short employment stints — think one year or less — on their resume without raising red flags. However, more than that will start to concern future employers. An employment history with back-to-back one-year positions with different employers will likewise signal to recruiters and hiring managers that you are someone they can’t depend on to stick around. If you commit to serving on a project for a specific time period, you should strive to always meet that commitment. If not, have a good reason for leaving early and follow some of the tips above to help mitigate any fallout.

If you have a questions about managing your career in global development, please tweet me @DevexCareers.

About the author

  • Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.