How honest should you be when quitting your job?

21 jun 2022

7 min

How honest should you be when quitting your job?
Natalia Barszcz

Freelance journalist and writer

So you’ve made your decision: you’re going to resign. Congratulations! And you’re not alone: as the Great Resignation rages on, a record 4.5 million employees in the United States quit their jobs in March, according to the Department of Labor. Considering that by the end of 2021 more than 47 million Americans had left their jobs voluntarily, it might seem like a straightforward process. But is it?

To help you prepare to hand in your notice, we spoke with three women who did so recently. We also asked Pennsylvania-based career strategist Jennifer Wegman for advice on how to tell your employer about your decision. Should you be completely honest? Well, that depends.

Getting closure

Before deciding how much you want to tell your employers when resigning, you need to assess the situation. “There are many factors that play into this: your management, your workplace, the possible implications,” says Wegman. “You should consider all of those. And most importantly, you do not have to give a reason for your resignation at all.”

Remember that you are the most important piece of the puzzle. Do you want your employer to know why you have made your decision? There can be benefits. “Ultimately, the biggest benefit of honesty is the personal sense of closure,” Wegman says. “When you are honest about the reasons why you’re leaving, it provides you with a chance to let out all the stuff you have been holding in for, possibly, a long time.”

“Ultimately, the biggest benefit of honesty is the personal sense of closure.”

Take Christina, 31, who used to work as a senior brand manager at a marketing agency. After feeling unfulfilled in her role and eventually realizing she was ready for a change, Christina decided to talk with the management before handing in her notice. “I was very honest with them. I told them about how I felt about my work, that it didn‘t bring me any more joy and that my mental health was suffering. But despite all that, I wanted to leave with good feelings on both sides,” she says. At first, Christina’s employers offered her alternative positions within the company. After a few days, however, they accepted her decision. “I felt so relieved, suddenly all the anxiety and pressure I had felt were gone. I felt so proud of myself – I had stood up for what I wanted.”

“I felt so relieved, suddenly all the anxiety and pressure I had felt were gone.”

If you plan to tell your employer why you are leaving the company, it’s important to consider how you present the information. “If you decide to be honest, be as constructive as possible,” Wegman says. “Focus on ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’ statements.”

For example, try saying, “I am leaving because I do not feel like there is enough opportunity for promotion.” Don’t say, “You don’t provide any opportunities for me to move up.”

Don’t forget to be polite either. “When you sit down to give your notice, you can ask if your employer is open to learning more about why you are leaving.”

Honesty is not mandatory

Resigning is not as straightforward as it may seem, however, and honesty may not always be the best policy. “If you do want to give a reason for quitting, then you have to let the situation be your guide,” Wegman says. “The overall workplace culture, your relationship with the management, how close you are with your colleagues… [these factors] all play a significant role in whether full transparency when leaving the job is warranted – or deserved.” The bottom line? You have to decide what will work best for you.

You may feel that it’s best not to explain yourself. This was the case for Danielle, 28, who used to work as a producer in a video production house. “I had gotten a lot of advice from other people in the production industry [that I should] retain the relationship with my previous employer, no matter what the relationship or what the power dynamic was [like],” she says.

After working for the company for a little over a year, Danielle had plenty of reasons to quit: lack of organization at the company; lack of clarity on her responsibilities; no opportunities for growth; and a feeling of burnout. Though she had plenty to complain about, she decided not to go into detail when it came to the exit interview. I tried to approach it cleverly – instead of listing all the things I didn’t enjoy within my role, I gave them feedback about what would have helped me during my time there, in the hope that maybe they could take some of that in and make the position better for the next person,” she says.

Wegman says you should keep in mind the potential consequences of your resignation. “There is always a possibility that people will take it upon themselves to make things difficult unofficially if they don’t like what you said – but you have to cross that bridge when you come to it.”

Christina feels lucky that her honesty didn‘t lead to any negative consequences, while, to Danielle, being more upfront would have been too much of a risk. “Looking back, I still feel there was a limit to what I could have said, especially since my goal was to stay in the industry. I did hold back but I was sincere,” Danielle says. “There were a lot of things I could have said but I don’t regret not being fully honest.”

“Looking back, I still feel there was a limit to what I could have said, especially since my goal was to stay in the industry.”

So what should you do when you feel like your reputation could take a hit after you resign? “The best way to deal with this is to take care of your reputation before it becomes an issue,” says Wegman. Don’t let your work environment or industry control you and your decisions. Be the one who controls it and shapes it in a way that works for you and your professional goals.

Network early and often online and in-person so that you are the one in control of your reputation within a company, industry, or community,” Wegman says. Building a personal brand and a trusted network is the best way to combat negativity in times of career transition because you have already built up a level of trust with people.” If you have a strong reputation and good relationships within your industry, you can easily clear up any negativity or misunderstandings that might emerge.

Silence can be golden

Being upfront about your reasons for resigning can have professional and personal benefits: you and your employer can get a sense of closure, and you leave the workplace feeling like you’ve done all you could have. Sometimes, however, it’s just easier not to be completely honest. Fatima, 26, who now works as a sales development representative at a tech company, found herself in such a situation when she was working in a healthcare recruitment firm in an environment that was toxic and male-dominated.

“Every day, I was made to feel like as a woman – a woman who was very successful at her job – I was an unusual case, because men are better workers and are the ones set to succeed,” she says. “Now I know how completely wrong and untrue this is – but at the time, this communication got into my head and I began believing it.” At the same time, Fatima felt that she was not progressing at work, but was heading for burnout. “The company’s selling point was that it was available to customers 24/7 – and they expected their employees to be available and happy to work 24/7 as well,” she says. “So many times I would get emails late at night, [I was] expected to reply and engage in the task. At the same time, I realized my job was not teaching me anything new and I was just dreading it so much. I knew I needed to leave.”

So how should you approach a situation like this? When it comes to working in an environment that doesn’t value you — or is simply toxic — Wegman says ‘less is more.’ “In some workplace cultures, your honesty about why you’re leaving could be used against you in the future.”The employer may decide not to give you a recommendation or may write one that is not helpful to you. This could hinder you from finding another job or may affect dealings with a new employer.

“In some workplace cultures, your honesty about why you’re leaving could be used against you in the future.”

“In the meeting with my manager, I was asked whether my job is something I see myself doing for a long time. I immediately said no – but that is as far as I went with honesty,” Fatima recalls. “I wasn’t honest about why I wanted to leave. I just couldn’t see myself listing all the things that were wrong with the job and with the company – and there were many. I was stressed. I didn’t know how they would react, but I also felt like I needed to tell them why I made my decision.”

Such behavior is common, according to Wegman. Many of us feel like we have to justify our decisions and explain what we feel and think – especially at work. Fatima gave her manager different, less significant reasons as to why she had decided to quit. “I said that it’s not something I want to do career-wise, that my husband didn’t like me working such long hours, that I wanted to focus on helping my father with his business… Though only the first one was true.”

Wegman says we should ignore the compulsion to justify ourselves. “Just as it isn’t necessary to justify saying ‘no,’ in a situation, it is not necessary to justify ‘I quit,’ either,” she says. “A resignation with applicable notice should be sufficient to leave most positions.”

“Just as it isn’t necessary to justify saying ‘no,’ in a situation, it is not necessary to justify ‘I quit,’ either.”

Fatima doesn’t regret leaving, but wishes she had been more open about her reasons. She says, “Thinking now, I wish I’d stood up for myself and been clear about how the job and the company made me feel. I wish I’d said that the way they were treating me, and other women too, was wrong – and that I was underpaid, overworked, constantly stressed, and seriously misled during the hiring interview.”

Regret is normal, especially in a situation like this. Though instead of beating yourself up for not confronting your manager about all the things that were wrong in the workplace, try to learn from the situation. “Every experience can be used as a learning curve. They help to clarify what we do and don’t want in our lives,” says Wegman. “By being honest with ourselves, we can clarify our key values, move forward and find workplaces, positions, and opportunities that align more closely with them.”

Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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