'I quit': How to hand in the perfect resignation

By Matt Potter

Whether it's a bombshell or a disappearing act, your departure needs planning

How you leave a job is as important as how you find one. Photo / iStock
How you leave a job is as important as how you find one. Photo / iStock

Resignations are history written not by the victors but by the ones who quit the field. I've studied them for 25 years, I've ghostwritten them, and they all share one thing: that they are as close as any of us will get to composing our own epitaph. Hurried memoirs, they are written at the point of no return.Rehearsed departures fill our daydreams. There are more online search results for "resignation" than "bereavement", or even "childbirth".

So consider this list of the key resignation types as a self-help guide.

The truth bomb

Everyone has a truth bomb in them: that public dissection of your organisation's failings is a staple of the boozy leaving-do speech. But as a resignation, planned in advance and sprung on your company (for best results, cc everyone), it can be an exercise in asymmetric warfare.

The element of surprise is key. Senior executive Greg Smith resigned from his job in 2012 with an explosive open letter titled "Why I am leaving Goldman Sachs".

But emailing his bosses wasn't enough for Smith: he had arranged for The New York Times to run it as an op-ed that morning. It was a resignation exactly the way people like them: the little guy standing up to an industry that many felt deserved its comeuppance. Before the investment bank could react, the letter had gone viral. By sunset, stock was down $2 billion.

The conversation killer

Resigning in disgrace or failure? Wouldn't it be great if nobody noticed? The idea is to end the ordeal: to slide out quietly and make people forget what you did.

So avoid any mention of what went wrong, and be unquotable. In writing your resignation letter, kill any nice turns of phrase or specifics. Let sub-clauses, qualifiers, legalese and passive-voice settle over it like sleeping gas: you want anyone reading it to glaze over.

Otherwise, try misdirection. Point at your accusers. Those in high-profile positions can claim that media attention has become "a distraction" from the job. This means you never have to explain why you kept losing and fell out with your team captain (Ruud Gullit), or why your arrest is imminent (Andy Coulson's "When the spokesman needs a spokesman, it's time to move on").

When the game really is up, and everyone's already talking about you, hint there are things they don't know. You might be very sick, for all they know. (Enron president Jeffrey Skilling's "I am resigning for purely personal reasons.")

The insider hit

Otherwise known as "doing a Geoffrey Howe". Sir Geoffrey was seen as Mrs Thatcher's consensus-seeking better-half. His resignation's sense of frustration was more deadly to her than scorn: "[Serving the PM in Europe] is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain."

In 2012, global headlines were briefly dominated by a London advertising executive who poured his resignation - and a bizarre cavalcade of accusations against a boss - onto a cc-all email. The rant went viral.

These resignations fed things we instinctively suspect to be true: Mrs Thatcher must have been infuriating to work with; ad-land contains cads.

The kamikaze protest

Kamikaze pilots' effectiveness lay partly in their chilling display of conviction. As a resignation tactic, this has terrible power.

As momentum gathered for invading Iraq in May 2003, Robin Cook's resignation famously argued against "the rush to war". Less famous was that of Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the government's deputy legal advisor, whose letter hinted that signing off an attack on Iraq would compromise her duties in war crimes cases at the International Criminal Court.

These are resignations as chilling prophecy. Done right, the resignation of conscience can lift you clear - and scare the devil out of everyone else.

The message in a bottle

Resigning under a cloud? Relax. You can still be right all along!

If you're out of time and goodwill, but want to float the idea that you'll be more kindly judged down the line, make your resignation one for the record. Make it clear you're speaking to history.

Richard Nixon pioneered this format. His televised resignation was effectively a condensed memoir: "I have never been a quitter... I fought for what I believed in." The future is a slippery thing, though. Tony Blair's appeal to be judged not on the Iraq debacle but by his economy must have seemed like a safe bet in 2007. Yet within weeks, Northern Rock was crumbling. That gamble on posterity suddenly looked a lot less certain.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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