Your Resignation Letter: How To Have The Last Word

In most cases, we recommend that you keep your letter of resignation concise, formal and polite. Your name, date, the person it is addressed to, a notice of termination of employment, when this is effective from and finally, your signature will suffice. The resignation letter is a formality first and last – you can expect your boss to read it quickly, acknowledge it and then file it away with all the other quitters. However, there may be an occasion when you really, really want to tell your boss something else.

People leave jobs for many different reasons: they decide to continue their career elsewhere, they need more money, they’re bored of their work, personalities have clashed too often, and so on. Your own reason for leaving can usually be expressed in a few sentences, if at all. What we’re going to deal with here is how to handle the urge to get something off your chest. How should your boss be made aware of a problem that he or she would otherwise fail to notice or refuse to face up to? We’ve seen hundreds of letters that set out with this intention but which get bogged down in unpleasantries. It’s unfortunate that in these cases the final correspondence with an employer is used as an opportunity to issue personal abuse, whinge and score points – a letter of revenge rather than resignation. We never, ever advocate resorting to this in your own letter. It can only do you harm.

We also receive letters where the advice ‘if you’ve nothing good to say, keep quiet’ is abandoned with some style. It is possible to quit your job, say your piece and leave your bridges intact behind you. If you have any concerns about getting a good reference (your new job may depend on it), maintaining good relations with friends who are also colleagues or keeping your good reputation intact, think about what you commit to paper. It’s simple: keep your criticism constructive, don’t get too personal and if you must express your criticism of an individual or department use only civil, businesslike language.

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Compare these two extracts from a pair of letters sent to us in the last few months. The first is from someone who has decided, reluctantly, to leave his job in the telecommunications industry:

The very fact that we have let our infrastructure erode to such a level that many systems have become redundant or severely downgraded through lack of investment and or maintenance has always perplexed me. This apparent philosophy will always ensure that we come second best to companies that concentrate on the fabric and foundations of their business first, thus ensuring that they have a solid platform to go forward into the market place.

I hope the company is able to find a formula for success and move out of this cycle of melancholy and become the brand leader, which all other companies will use as a yardstick within the industry and so I wish you all the success in the future.

Fair enough – this employee has given his company’s predicament a lot of thought and seems to be leaving out of sheer frustration. He can see how the company should be doing better. If things improve, he might even be persuaded to return. Conversely, can you detect a hint, the merest hint of bitterness in the following extract?

It was bad enough that our 28-year-old director has an ego the size of the corporate debt, but it was completely impossible to sit through any more of his lectures on “sacrificing for the company” as he sat there drawing in over 65k a year doing nothing but giving “wise” lectures to more experienced people. Note to self – it’s who you know, not WHAT you know.

This second extract doesn’t reflect well on the writer – it’s personal, anecdotal, smacks of jealousy, bad blood and ill-temper. The manager in question is probably glad to see this employee go. It would have been possible to raise the same concerns with more diplomacy and tact. Yes, the inexperience of the director and inequity of the pay structure would be fair game, but bringing up his age is probably unnecessary. The message is lost amid the bile. That last extract is relatively mild in its personal attack compared to others we have received. Sometimes an employee goes nuclear and disses everyone they have ever worked with one by one:

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Sally, though not a particularly pleasant human being, was a good manager, but then I supposed she had to take up the slack for that total dickhead Larry (did you know he’s been falsifying records?) And how those arseholes in human resources can sleep at night I’ll never know…

This is the sort of thing we get sent all the time. We only hope that they’re beefed-up versions of the letter they actually sent.

It’s becoming more common to hand in one’s notice by email (we recently heard from someone who had been sacked by means of text message). This is doubly dangerous because there is a misperception that email is more disposable and therefore less meaningful than a paper letter. On the contrary, emails are simply easier to retrieve at any moment and easier to duplicate. Insults and accusations hammered out on a keyboard and then sent without due care and attention could bring your career and reputation crashing down – you might even make the evening news! We published a letter of this type and received a terse missive from the company’s lawyers within three days. Other firms were begging us to send them a copy, but of course, we had to refuse.

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There is a time and place for serious accusations – and it’s not in a resignation letter. Another writer thinks about what her letter says and, after making a number of recommendations about how the business is run, concludes:

If this rings any bells with anyone in upper management, maybe some good will come of it.

Bell-ringing and whistle-blowing is an admirable purpose for your parting shots but thinks through what you plan to say and cover your back. So here are our four points for resignation letter writing:

1. If you have worked up yourself into a lather about quitting, the chances are that you won’t be thinking as clearly as you would normally. You’ll want to say things that, in the cold light of the future, won’t sound as reasonable as they do today. They’ll make you cringe when you look back at them, and you’ll probably make some spelling errors.

2. Don’t get personal. If you do, prepare for the possible consequences which could mean a bad reference, uncomfortable notice period or punch-ups.

3. Try to adhere to the maxim of remaining Magnanimous and Dignified throughout.

4. Finally, if you do have some constructive criticism that you’d like to share with your boss before you leave, maybe the best place to do this would be in the Exit Interview rather than your resignation letter. Remember that by writing something down, you’re giving it a permanence that may come back someday to haunt you.

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