Leaving on bad terms

Leaving a job on bad terms is not “career suicide”, but it is a difficult terrain to navigate. Here's what you need to know if you are considering a move.

It’s the classic scenario, and often the source of law firm whispers. Every day you dread going in to work – not because of what you do, but because of the people you’re with. The partner. Maybe you’ve been at your firm for years, or just started in a new role. Either way, your working life has become a nightmare and finally you’ve had enough. “I quit!”… now what?

While it’s not a good to look like a “job hopper”, you cannot stay in a role you do not enjoy. Not only will you be unhappy, but staying in an unhappy work environment will impact your professionalism and reputation. Personality and culture conflicts happen all the time, and HR personnel understand this. Leaving a job because of a culture that you do not like is a legitimate move. However what does raise red flags with future employers is any indicator that you are the one with the problem, as bringing on a high-conflict personality will create the same issues in their team.

Leaving a job on bad terms is not “career suicide”, but it is a difficult terrain to navigate. In order to secure your new role, you will have to show potential future employers that your decision to quit was professional, not petulant.
When to Quit

Generally my advice to lawyers is to never leave a job before you have secured your next role. But what if it’s too late?

If you’ve quit before you had a chance to become active in the market, then you need to take immediate action.. Get in touch with a specialised recruiter to discuss your options, actively pursue opportunities and reach out to your networks. While you’re searching, take the time to pursue interests outside of work – travel, community work, learning and development. The idea is to treat this time as a period of leave, rather than unemployment.
Professionalism is Key

The most important thing is to remain professional. Ideally this should start with the way you quit – a formal letter and private scheduled meeting rather than a dramatic “I quit!” in front of your whole team. Again, quitting because of a personal conflict is not fatal to your career prospects. What will create issues is earning a reputation as a difficult person to work with by “bad-mouthing” your former employer to others in the profession.

Try to mitigate any ill-will by sending an email or letter to your partner thanking them for the opportunities they offered and expressing regret the role didn’t work out. Avoid the temptation to vent or complain to your colleagues and others. If the situation was bad enough to compel you to quit, other people (especially colleagues) will have noticed. Refusing to publically engage or speak negatively about your previous employer creates the perception that it was the role – not you – that was the problem. If you are constantly complaining, people may assume it was you that was difficult.

The Interview

One of the biggest problems you will face after leaving a job on bad terms is how to explain your departure to future employers. What do you do about references? How will you justify the gap in your employment?

It is important to maintain professionalism and honesty. Don’t try to “justify” quitting by providing an elaborate explanation individually referencing each person you had an issue with. Keep it simple, and show you have taken something positive from the experience.

“Unfortunately I had a personality conflict with members of the team, and the dynamics of the firm. While I took steps to address the issue, I eventually felt it was impacting the quality of my work and the value I could offer the company, so I chose to step down.”

Rather than:
“My boss was a slavedriver and I couldn’t take it any more!”

If you did not get on well with your boss they are unlikely to provide a reference that will give a fair representation of your work. Explain this to HR, and be ready to suggest other referees – either previous bosses or colleagues and superiors you worked well with. If they insist on speaking with the person you had a conflict with, start “damage control” by providing an honest but flattering account of your issue.

For example:
“Linda was a perfectionist which meant that our team was constantly producing high quality work, which I was proud to be a part of. However, she had very high expectations and while I was always sure to meet my responsibilities I couldn’t sustain that constant workload. I felt I had to move on to an opportunity that provided the same high-quality work, but also offered balance.”

Present yourself as a professional who made the responsible choice to leave a difficult situation. You want to show your future employer you are a person with integrity, who will act upon issues when they arise rather than allowing a bad situation to fester.

The decision to quit because you are on bad terms with your employer is a legitimate one. Navigate quitting with respect, and you’ll find yourself in a more positive situation.

By Lisa Gazis, Managing Director, Mahlab  (NSW)

Lisa Gazis is the Managing Director of Mahlab NSW. Lisa manages Mahlab’s NSW operations and conducts senior corporate and partner level search and recruitment campaigns. She provides strategic consulting services to corporations and law firms in Australia and abroad.

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