Avoid Burning Bridges

by Randy Murray on May 14, 2010

Years ago when I was leaving a comfortable corporate job to strike out on my own and start a new business with a partner, a friend and colleague pulled me aside and said, “Be careful not to burn any bridges when you leave. Columbus is a very small town.”

I hadn’t planned on it, but it was extremely good advice. Although Columbus claims to be a big city, the people I had worked with at Sterling Commerce (know then as Sterling Software) are people I still work with and run into at businesses all over town. And subsequent jobs have helped me make close friends around the country. They’re the ones who are making it possible for me to work as an independent freelancer.

The metaphor of “burning a bridge” is a strong one. If you think about the actual act, it’s one of violence, something you’d do to protect your retreat from an advancing enemy. Bridges are important and expensive pieces of infrastructure. They’re difficult to replace. Even in war, you don’t blow one up or burn it down unless you absolutely have to.

Your relationships with the businesses you’ve worked with and for are vital pieces of your infrastructure. That’s why you must attempt to preserve them and only destroy them when all hope is lost.  Leaving a job is not the time to score some points on a manager or co-worker that you dislike.  Even if you’re very unhappy with your job, you need to try and exit as professionally and as pleasantly as possible. The only time you should burn a bridge is when filing criminal charges. Seriously.

I left Sterling on very good terms and that’s been important to me over the years. In fact, upon leaving I prepared a list of “Things we can now blame on Randy”, which was my humorous attempt to defuse any displeasure at my leaving. I think it helped.

Even when you’re being laid off or fired, try and make the best of a difficult situation. Thank your employer for the opportunity and refrain from emotional outbursts. You might think it will make you feel better, but it will only convince them that they did the right thing by letting you go. Even if you’re surprised, shocked by the loss of your job, you need to deal with the immediate issue, and that’s to preserve your infrastructure. Even the person giving you your “walking papers” might be able to help you in the future. Keep that first in your mind.

Sure, there are companies and individuals that you never want to deal with again, but forever is a very long time. Please don’t damage your future prospects for a few minutes of overflowing righteous indignation. Let the bridges stand, shore them up, keep them in good repair. You never know when you might need to cross back to the other side or meet someone halfway.

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