Graceful Exit

When Project Professionals Change Jobs, the Difference between a Burned Bridge and a Smooth Departure Is Often in the Details



Low unemployment in certain markets and global C-suite concerns over skills availability are making job-hopping more common. Voluntary turnover jumped to 15.5 percent of all workplace departures last year, according to a global Mercer study, up from 14 percent in 2017.

“We live in a time where turnover has increased dramatically,” says Alejandro Gabriel Aramburu, PMP, co-founder and director, Innova project management office (PMO), San Luis, Argentina. Yet an uptick in turnover doesn't mean that project managers can be cavalier about changing roles, he says. Instead, project professionals should be mindful to manage the transition like a project, with similar considerations around stakeholder relationships, timing and planning.

Here are four ways to make sure goodbye doesn't become good riddance.



Break the News: Timing Is Everything

In an ideal world, a project or program manager's departure would align perfectly with the end of any initiative they're managing—and before the start of a new project. But at many organizations—with project professionals juggling multiple initiatives and overlapping schedules—finding the perfect time to exit is all but impossible.

Instead of putting off the conversation until after a particular task or milestone is complete, schedule the meeting as soon as the departure decision is final, says John Evers, PMP, project manager, Roche, Basel, Switzerland. Those managing smaller or more isolated initiatives might find that two weeks’ notice is ample time to transition project responsibilities. But in certain sectors or more senior roles, those who are managing complicated and interconnected initiatives should be prepared to give four weeks’ notice or more before moving on.

As for the actual conversation, says Mr. Evers, keep it concise and to the point. It's not uncommon for bosses to wonder what's driving the change. “Be prepared in case you're asked why the other opportunity is better for you,” he says.

Managers might have immediate questions, too, about how the departure will impact existing projects or who should pick up specific tasks. Alternatively, they might want to create a transition plan without much input or to hash out details at a later time. Follow their lead, says Mr. Evers. It can be tempting to unveil a robust plan, but keep in mind they might need time to absorb the news before digging into the nittygritty.



Pass the Baton: Double Down on Documentation

Proper documentation is the backbone of any successful initiative, but that doesn't mean a compressed schedule or stretched resources don't sometimes trump keeping paperwork updated in real time. But with a departure fast approaching, that's the moment to move documentation to the front burner, says Lara Martinez Gonzalez, PMP, senior human resources (HR) transformation manager, Alexion Pharmaceuticals, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Remember: The materials left behind become part of a project manager's legacy at the company. “If project documentation seems sloppy, that reflects on you, even after you're gone,” she says.


—Lara Martinez Gonzalez, PMP, Alexion Pharmaceuticals, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

The best format will vary from organization to organization—and from team to team. While getting everything from the work breakdown structure to the updated project budget down on paper is imperative, pairing that paperwork with in-person meetings is worth the added effort, says Ipek Sahra Ozguler, PMP, project manager, Halkbank PMO, Istanbul, Turkey.

“Reviewing and revising project information together—as a group or one-on-one—creates more awareness,” she says. A shared review also can highlight any information gaps or lingering questions that need to be addressed. Once the paper trail is complete, make sure all your project documentation is stored in a centralized spot, such as the company's server, and that multiple stakeholders—from the project sponsor to individual team members—know how to access it.

Making it clear to team members that communication doesn't have to halt completely also can go a long way toward cultivating goodwill. When Ms. Martinez Gonzalez left her company in 2018, she let her team know that she'd remain an email away for any emergencies. “I had someone reach out with a specific question, and I was able to point them in the right direction,” she says.

Departing Shots: Flex Diplomacy



Naturally, co-workers and team members will ask questions, but it's generally best to focus on the future rather than detail all of the reasons for departing, says Mr. Aramburu.

The one place where it can be productive to offer constructive criticism is during the exit interview, during which human resources might inquire about what could be improved at the organization. The key, though, is to keep it constructive.

“The exit interview is the last impression that the employer will have of you,” he says. During one exit interview, Mr. Aramburu's employer made a counteroffer and asked him to stay. Mr. Aramburu explained that he wasn't leaving because of salary concerns (he'd actually be taking a pay cut in the new position). Rather, he wanted to switch organizations for a new challenge. The interviewer thanked him, saying that the organization would use that information to better retain project managers in the future.

Farewell, Hostility

Two project managers share their hard-won advice on how to handle team members who are less than supportive of an impending exit.

Face Forward

“If team members question why you're leaving, explain your reasoning but don't attack the current job. Be as constructive and fact-based as possible, while focusing on the future opportunity.”


—John Evers, PMP, project manager, Roche, Basel, Switzerland

Call for Backup

“If hostility exists, do your best not to engage with it. If people can't act in a professional manner and focus on what needs to get done, it may be necessary to ask for more support. Maybe the new project manager attends team meetings or an HR manager is present during the exit interview.”


—Alejandro Gabriel Aramburu, PMP, co-founder and director, Innova PMO, San Luis, Argentina


Keep in Touch: Network for the Future

“Sooner or later we will interact with old partners, customers or ex-collaborators, so it's always a best practice to maintain great relations,” says Mr. Aramburu, who's both sustained professional friendships from former positions and circled back to companies he's left, in a freelance consultant role.

Today, keeping in touch is often as simple as sending a LinkedIn invite to team members and stakeholders. Adding a short, personalized note about how you've enjoyed working with the person can be a nice touch, he says.

One unexpected way to avoid hurt feelings among former co-workers? Wait to trumpet the news of a new job on social media until the old team's transition has settled. Waiting to spread the word on social media also means you can settle into the new role—and make sure it's a fit—before broadcasting the career move far and wide.

Nurturing contacts with former co-workers doesn't just protect your relationship at the former organization; it can also land you more opportunities down the line. When Ms. Martinez Gonzalez started her most recent job search, it was a past team member from a former company who recommended her for the role. The company made an offer immediately. “Because of our good professional experiences with each other—and how gracefully we'd parted ways—we were happy to help each other out,” she says. PM



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