If the suggestions above aren’t enough, or if you just know it’s time to go, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Make clear that it’s not them, it’s you
Millions of people (including yours truly) have used the old adage “it’s not you, it’s me” when ending a relationship. Taking all the responsibility can alleviate an otherwise painful situation. While it’s not always the real reason behind wanting to end a romantic relationship, it is often true in work breakups. The job and company I loved for many years was no longer eliciting the same excitement. It wasn’t them—it was just time for me to make a change. That doesn’t make anyone the bad guy; it happens sometimes. When it does, it’s important to be honest, take responsibility for wanting a change, and treat your departure respectfully to honor the experiences you’ve shared.
You can stay friends, but it takes effort
If, like me, you’ve spent countless hours working alongside or traveling with colleagues over long periods of time, chances are some have become your friends. If you’re fortunate, this includes a mix of direct reports, clients, managers, mentors, and other professional partners you’ve encountered along the way. With thoughtful planning and communication, you can preserve these relationships and carry them into your next professional journey.
After informing people that you are moving on to your next adventure, let key contacts know how much they have meant to you, personally and professionally, and that you want to stay in touch. This can be a bit awkward at first, just like after a breakup. Some colleagues might feel uncomfortable or unsure of how to interact in this new and unfamiliar construct, others will want to maintain the same level of interaction, and some may want to give you space. The onus is on you, the leaver, to make the effort and reset the ground rules so people know what to expect.
If you leave on good terms, it’s also possible to stay friends with your employer on an organizational level. Many companies set up official alumni networks or host former employees at industry events. Some include previous employees in select marketing and recruitment efforts or ask alums to participate on panels. These companies understand that employees who leave on good terms often go on to become clients, referrals, or business partners.
Try being friends with benefits
If you were a valuable contributor and you depart as part of a thoughtful transition, that can leave the door open for future projects or consulting engagements. This type of arrangement can be mutually beneficial because both parties know what they are getting into, and there doesn’t have to be a longer-term commitment on either end. I’ve known several colleagues who have left their full-time job only to take on a project or a part-time assignment down the road. If both parties are upfront about expectations, this type of arrangement can be convenient and rewarding without strings attached. But just like a romantic relationship, if one party has any lingering hope for something more, this won’t work—and can negate all the positive aspects of consciously uncoupling in the first place.
Looking back, I don’t take for granted how fortunate I was to have a professional environment where I was able to learn, experiment, experience, and grow. I am also deeply grateful for the many friendships I’ve made over the years, which I continue to cherish and enjoy.
After being in a committed work relationship for so long, I am now playing the field and exploring different startup opportunities, industries, and business models. I am especially enjoying hanging out (aka consulting) and even learning a few new moves (but that’s a topic for another time). In the end, it wasn’t them, it was me—and consciously uncoupling with my long-term work relationship was absolutely the right decision.