Top things to avoid when seeking to separate professionally

Views & Analysis
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Oliver Stohlmann’s Corporate Survival Hacks series draws on his experiences of working in local, regional, and global life science communications to offer some little tips for enjoying a big business career. This column shares advice on ending employment with dignity, striving for mutual outcomes and lasting insights, to hone personal development and leadership skills.

Inevitably, all corporate careers come to an end at some point. Whether it’s your decision, your employer’s, a mutual separation, or natural retirement, it can usher in an awkward period when everyone knows you’ll be leaving soon, while you still have to serve out a notice period and conduct yourself in a professional manner.

For when this happens in your career, here a few cues on how to wrap up employment with dignity, creating a basis for happiness and success in your next chapter:

Don’t look back

Time and again I observe – particularly in difficult circumstances leading to separation, surprise termination creating angst, or when loyal employees of decades wrap up their long-term careers – that leavers spend lots of time and focus on rationalising the decision, seeking explanations, and mourning the past. Although a natural reaction, it is one that tends to expend a lot of energy and can exacerbate the draining emotions typically associated with change.

Instead, what if they managed to look ahead and focus that energy on aspects within their control, rather than fighting decisions already made? For instance, invest energy in creating the best mutual terms for the separation; get ready for your next exciting career step or well-deserved retirement, instead of lingering in a past you can’t change.

Be constructive yet seek support

A helpful element for being able to focus one’s energy on building the future is remaining polite and constructive, even – and especially – in adverse circumstances. If the employer is unfair or rude, your manager obnoxious, or everyone thrown into disarray following an unexpected change announcement, staying constructive and maintaining focus on actual deliverables can help you remain in control of your psyche, the situation at large, and the team you’re responsible for.

If conflict or unhappiness leads to departure, let the other side save face, even if you‘re angry or in possession of evidence of bad behaviours. Unless there is legally relevant misconduct, evident discrimination, or worse, it rarely helps to prolong an emotional fight by pouring oil into the fire. The faster you’re able to settle on acceptable terms, the sooner you’ll be able to re-invest all that energy into shaping your future.

Of course, you don’t have to accept just any condition an employer tries to dictate. In complex scenarios, seeking help or even just an impartial external opinion can be a good idea. This could be a trusted HR professional from a different organisation willing to lend their expertise, a union representative, or employee support association. Even investing in a specialised lawyer, in especially tough circumstances, can be worth every penny. They will help you negotiate on eye-level to achieve a fair outcome; they’ll also guide you at the outset should your case not justify engaging a labour law specialist.

Negotiate transparently

If you have entitlements or preferences to negotiate – like the consumption of outstanding leave days, a shorter notice period, support for your job search; or perhaps you would like to purchase your mobile phone or company car? – do so with clarity and confidence. Being transparent from the beginning will yield better outcomes than hoping to slip in a few more requests at a later point, when the company just wants to close the transaction and move on. You may even jeopardise previous favours your employer is leaning towards granting by creating an impression of ambiguity or greed.

On the flip side, your employer may ask that you consider delaying departure to ensure critical priorities are met until a successor has been found; they may prefer to pay off unconsumed leave, rather than losing your work time. On the other hand, they might want to put you on immediate garden leave if your role has already been made redundant or they don’t wish designated leavers to interact with colleagues any longer.

Once it’s sealed, stick to it

Whatever the constellation, in most jurisdictions nearly anything can be mutually agreed on as part of a consensual solution. So, if your employer asks you to accept their conditions, you can make your consent conditional on being granted yours. If you have requests, go for them as long as they’re reasonable.

However, once you’ve agreed on acceptable terms following appropriate discussion, consideration, and exploration of alternatives, be fair and stick to them. This goes for both parties. It’s just obnoxious behaviour and, again, wastes emotions and energy if, after signing an agreement, one or the other side breaks it, whether out of spite or simple carelessness.

Keep up the good work

In mutual as well as forced separations, the best path to leaving with a positive reputation among peers, superiors, the outside world, and future employers is by not dropping a beat and staying fully focused on delivering your targets until the last day of work.

Staying focused and professional is also the most promising way of ‘suggesting’ to your employer that they should honour your interests, too, treat you fairly during the notice period, and equip you with a strong reference to secure opportunities in the future. It creates a more durable basis for trust and good will than watching you drop in performance or disappear into thin air altogether.

Never forget the people

Whether your experience was brilliant, terrible, or somewhere in-between, never forget those people you worked with and what you might learn from each one. For me, most valuable insights and personal development have come from observing outstanding leaders, peers, and team members – as well as nauseating ones. The latter often revealed traits and behaviours I swore to avoid at all costs, which may arguably offer even greater benefit than striving to match exceptional leadership attributes.

With that in mind, I’m looking back today with gratitude to every colleague who has been part of my career journey. I owe you so much!

As for those pondering their next career move, let me remind you of US entrepreneur Chris Grosser’s advice: “Opportunities don't happen; you create them.”

Mark Twain, also, had guidance for people unsure whether they work in a nurturing environment of inspiring leadership: “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

  • Focus ahead, not on the past
  • Don’t put energy into things you cannot change
  • Instead of lingering in the past, get ready for the next chapter
  • Stay polite and constructive in adverse circumstances
  • Remain focused on deliverables and don’t drop in performance
  • Let the other side save their face
  • Don’t just accept any condition imposed on you
  • In complex circumstances, seek help
  • Negotiate with clarity and confidence
  • Don’t be ambiguous or unreasonable
  • Don’t shy away from discussing your wishes
  • Once finalised, don’t break the agreed terms
  • Never forget those you worked with and what you learned from them
  • Help others become great
  • Don’t wait for opportunities to happen, create them


About the author

Oliver StohlmannOliver Stohlmann is a communications leader with more than 20 years’ experience of working at local, regional, and global levels for several of the world’s premier life-science corporations. Most recently he was Johnson & Johnson’s global head of external innovation communication.