what should a resignation letter say?

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A reader writes:

What is the proper form for a good resignation letter?

I’ve written them before and it’s easy when it’s a simple reason for leaving – but it’s a little complicated this time.  I used to love my job (and still love parts of it) but it’s morphed into something that’s not nearly as gratifying – and quite frankly I owe it to myself and my family to see if I can find a position which pays better.

I have nothing but respect for my bosses and the company so I want to be completely transparent about this – I have a sensitive position in a smallish industry and I wouldn’t put my resume out without letting them know.  I don’t want to find another position and then blindside them, and am happy to stay for a couple of months for the transition of finding and training my replacement.  They have a history of allowing this and I want this to go as smoothly for them as possible.

It’s a lot harder to resign when there’s no animosity – I tried to write the letter but it ended up being too long and too specific.

Basically what I want to say is that I need to start looking, use my time on the books for interviews…but I’m willing to stay until the end of March to help them transition if needed.  I just don’t want to do this on the sly – and if it wasn’t well received I’m certainly ready to leave effective immediately – but I want to give them the option because I don’t want to cause more disruption or inconvenience than necessary for them.

My reasons for leaving have been addressed and I am not hopeful anything will change so getting back out on the market is the next step.  I am on the edge of burnout and I want to do this now, while I am still effective and can do this professionally without negatively impacting my company.

I’m going to talk with them, but have the letter with me to present at the time to confirm my offer to stay for the transition if they so desire.

First, huge kudos to you for handling it this way. I wish everyone operated like this.

And I have an easy answer for you: Everything you’re trying to figure out how to put in writing is actually stuff you don’t need to put in the letter. That’s the stuff that you’ll say when you talk in person.

The letter itself is just a formality and should be very short. In fact, lots of people don’t even use them at all. They’re really just there to document that you did in fact resign your job. Your employer will keep it on file in case they ever need it for legal reasons — like if you later sue, or if you file for unemployment claiming you were laid off, or whatever.

So all the letter needs to include is the fact that you’re resigning and the date that resignation is effective — although most people add in a sentence of fluff to soften it as well.

I’m talking just two or three sentences — something like this: “After three years at XYZ Company, I’ve made the difficult decision to move on, and March 31 will be my last day. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had here, wish the organization every success, and stand ready to help make the transition as smooth as possible.”

(In your case, because you’re flexible on the date, you could change that first sentence to: “After three years at XYZ Company, I’ve made the difficult decision to move on. I’d like to set my final day based on what works best for you; we can set it for any time between now and March 31.”)

And that’s it. The “meat” of the discussion is what you’ll say in person. The letter stays short and sweet. Good luck!

{ 27 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous

    When I resigned from my last job, I also brought in a spreadsheet I had made listing all my projects, current status, and a suggestion of what staff member I thought would be able to take it over. Having that helped my manager have some talking points when he went to discuss it with his manager.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yes! Great idea. Giving some thought to how the transition can work is really helpful, and will often go a long way toward helping a blindsided manager.

  2. Anonymous

    I also wish that more people operated like this and more companies were receptive to such candor. I have to be honest though, this concerns me a little: “…quite frankly I owe it to myself and my family to see if I can find a position which pays better.”

    If part of the reason you’re leaving is a higher salary, is being unemployed while searching for a new job in a tough market feasible for you? It would be amazing if they let you stay through March and during that time you found another position, but what if they were to walk you out the door immediately? You are spending a lot of time thinking about how best to take care of your company, so I hope that you have spent at least equal that time thinking about how best to take care of yourself.

  3. OP

    I’m the original poster – and first thanks Allison, I was so wrapped up in the minutia I totally over thought this. Short and simple – perfect.

    Now figuring out how to have the difficult conversation – that’s my problem. :)

    And a higher salary is about the long run – not an immediate need. I am certainly more concerned with my own financial situation than the company, my husband and I discussed this at length and are fine if it takes some time for me to find the right new job.

    Even if I found something in the same ballpark salary wise – but with a reasonable 45-50 a week workload I would consider that a step up. Basically I either want more money for the stress and hours or part of my life back.

    1. Anonymous

      Spreadsheet bringer from above here

      OP, that is exactly where I was. That spreadsheet listed 14 major projects and about 10 more little ones. (I am a database admin). I just walked in and said I would like to give him my resignation letter. From the look on his face, he knew I had too much work and had dreaded this. They replaced me with 3 people.

      Just walk in and state it. Be prepared to be walked out that day though. It probably won’t happen, but it might.

      1. OP

        I actually wouldn’t mind if it was immediate.

        I do feel an obligation and I am 100% willing to help them transition over the next two months if they like (my successor gave them five months). I want to do it because I owe it to them and it’s the professional thing to do – but it’s not to prolong my stay for me. I could use the time off.

        They replaced you with three people? I believe that – and people wonder why the burnout rate is so high in IT. There seems to be a certain personality trait common in IT professionals (and I’m including myself in this) which is somewhat obsessive and ego driven (or extremely vigilant and focused to use milder wording). Some employers mistakenly think they can under staff because – hey we love our jobs so why lessen the load? Unfortunately there’s a breaking point for everyone – and some who can’t moderate run till they burn out, recharge, and start a new challenge somewhere else.

        Good for you for making the call before your breaking point. That’s what I’m trying to do, too.

      2. anonymous_too

        That’s rather odd — if they needed three people to replace you — I would think that they’d sit down with you and work some sort of arrangement where they’d get you some help, perhaps another person.

        If your boss knew he was going to need three people to replace you at the time — he should have gotten you the help in advance but also could have negotiated some deal where you’d stay on.

        I once was held back in a job — for a similar reason. My resignation prompted a promotion, and they had to backfill my old position with two people.

        While some people – particularly “recruiters”, who stand to lose by your accepting a counter-offer, and will advise you to steer clear of them, it’s not always a bad thing.

        In my instance, I was getting a better job offer than the one I was going to move on to ; the company realized that they had exposed themselves more than they should have; and, oh yeah, my management didn’t want to have to answer to HR = “ok, you held him back, because he isn’t good enough to promote, but you need TWO people to replace him? HUH?”

        1. Anonymous

          anon2, it is pretty common I think. In IT, when you are not the profit center but rather a support area, management would prefer not to hire another $85K dba. And OP is right, IT folks are all a bit hyperactive and competitive and like to think we can manage. Then we get burned out. Then we get new jobs.

          A good manager would realize this and take steps to keep us and our institutional knowledge around, but I have never seen this happen. Not even once.

          1. Elaine

            Anonymous is right. I’m an administrative assistant, and I’ve seen this time and time again with admins. We’re generally people who like to be helpful, and often ignore the fact that we need help until we reach the breaking point.

            As the spreadsheet poster indicated, the manager *knew* the person was overwhelmed with work, but didn’t (or couldn’t) get that person any help.

            It makes me laugh to think of 3 new people trying to figure out what their jobs are and how to do them! HA!

    2. Anonymous

      “Basically I either want more money for the stress and hours or part of my life back.”

      Sounds exactly like my situation. I was working over 60 hours a week on a 40-hour salary and the workload kept growing. I told the boss that I am leaving to look for a job with reasonable hours; I would stay until all current priorities are sorted out. On my last day there, I realized the company cared only about profits and not about the managers who earn those profits. My position has had an annual turnover for the past 5 years and the company was just glad to save a few months salary bill every year. The reason for the turnover is very simple – extreme work overload the new manager has when he/she fills a position that has been vacant for three months and trying to supervise employee who think/know the manager will be gone in less than a year. The employees I supervised were really good and I felt terrible leaving them.
      I quit without having a job lined up and was unemployed for 6 months. But I never regretted the decision. I needed the time off to rest & look for work. Being on call 24-7 does not allow you to network.
      I recently got a new job that has very little overtime and pays as much as the one I had left. Now I have the weekends/evenings to myself.

  4. Anonymous

    I would like to follow this up with a question. If you wish to leave on good terms like the OP, how far in advance should you give your resignation? Don’t you risk them terminating you earlier than you are prepared to actually leave?

      1. clobbered

        It also depends on what the re-hiring period is in your industry. It takes us 6-9 months to rehire, so we appreciate as much notice as possible. 3 months notice is typical, but not enforced (and we understand when it is not possible).

        Re the OP: I wouldn’t even *resign* at this point. I’d just have a private conversation with my direct manager and say “I just want you to know that I am going to start looking for another job. I have enjoyed working with you buy [Reasons X, Y and Z]. I will try and give you at least N weeks/months notice if I am successful”.

        Unless you are so desperate to leave, why resign before you have another job offer

  5. Anonymous

    Just don’t be shocked when reality slaps you in the face and you’re still unemployed in 6 month, a year and quite possibly longer.

  6. Wilton Businessman

    I still have the fantasy of the old “Take this job and shove it, I ain’t a workin’ here no mo!”

  7. Brian

    I did this before – quitting and then looking for something else because I was fed up. Huge mistake. In hindsight, I think I did it to force my hand to leave. My boss was a nice guy but a horrible manager and that wasn’t gonna change. It took me about 5 months to find another good position. It turns out good jobs are hard to find. Who knew? And being unemployed for months with no decent prospects, a growing gap in my resume, dwindling savings and $600 COBRA payments? Scary. As. Hell.

    I agree with some other posters. Just have a casual, off-the-record chat with your boss letting her know you’re looking. That way it won’t be strange when you start taking off a bunch of afternoons at the last minute for interviews. Plus, a casual chat might allow your boss to address some issues or offer a big raise without feeling forced. Another important step that most people miss is NOT talking about this to your co-workers. Once it’s common knowledge you notified your boss you’re looking, that’s a hurdle for her to get over to save her pride that everyone knows she had to give you something to stay.

    1. Emily

      I would exercise caution. That casual, off-the-record chat with your boss could well result in your early dismissal, especially in “right-to-work” states. You never really know how someone will react.

  8. Anonymous

    It seems like your primary complaint is that you’ve overworked and/or underpaid. If you otherwise like the company–and you obviously do t o some degree, or you’d be unwilling to stay through March–why are you giving up on the alternate solution?

    Resigning means that you don’t want to be there at ALL> But if you want to be there (just not like this) then have a different discussion:

    VP Vicki, I need to talk to you about my job. I love Company X, and I’d like to stay. However, the pay/hours/stress/responsibility are not working out for me right now. I considered submitting my resignatino, but since I like Company X/Working for you/what I do/etc I wanted to see if you were interested in trying to restructure things so that I can stay.

  9. Anonymous

    I think it’s pretty cheeky of an employee to request that your employer help you find another job by accommodating your time off–and even more so to claim that it is a favor to them!

    I think if you tell your employer that you are looking for another job, you need to be prepared that they will immediately begin looking for your replacement–and may find them before you find your new job.

    It’s possibly to be considerate of your employer without sacrificing your own needs. Giving plenty of notice and training the new hire should be plenty, for example.

    1. anonymous

      In all but the rarest circumstances – you should NEVER tell a manager that you’re out looking for another job. They may perceive it as a threat, or a ploy on your part.

      Nor should you quit (unless it’s totally avoidable) before you have another situation in hand, in writing.

      If you have a job, it means you’re employable! That is a huge plus , a monstrous credential. Although it’s more difficult to job-hunt when you’re working, it’s easier to WIN a job search when you’re doing it.

      Don’t believe the “job counselors” who say that being unemployed is not a stigma. To many potential employers, it can be. The first thing that crosses many interviewers’ minds is “if this person is so good, and this interview is going well why is (s)he unemployed?”

      And if you look for another job while you’ve GOT another job, you can be more selective, it gives you more bargaining power when you’re negotiating pay — if a firm really wants you, they will pay to get you to leave your current job and join their ship.

      I also disagree with the headhunters who say “never consider a counter-offer” — and if you surprise your employer with a quiet resignation, they may present you with an attractive counter-offer, and if the circumstances are correct, you might actually be better off accepting it.

      But if your manager knows you’re out looking, and the word is spreading through the office that you’re doing that, it becomes impossible, politically, for a manager to set up a counter, or even begin negotiations with you to preclude you from doing that. Been there, done that. Learned by it.

  10. Richard

    A lot of this depends on the organisation you’re with; larger organisation with a dedicated HR will just want a formal ‘I hereby tender my resignation as of . I am willing to carry out my weeks of notice as stipulated within my contract, should it be required by the company.’ Personally, in this situation, I’ve sent something similar to the above letter to HR, and then prepared a more personal email to send to my manager and the people I’ve worked with, which I then sent on my last day.

    On the other hand, smaller organisations may appreciate a little more of a personal touch with your resignation letter offering more praise to the company itself, and the people you’ve worked with, and it certainly can’t hurt if you’re in a ‘small world’ industry where word spreads quickly regarding ‘problem’ employees. I’ve actually written such letters before for smaller jobs such as when I worked in a bar; they were certainly surprised to receive such a polite letter that praised management, but in response, I was told that I was always welcome back if I was ever looking for work in the area again – useful, when you’re not particularly experienced, and jobs are scarce.

  11. OP

    I am the OP – and I have an update.

    I decided not to tender my resignation at this time, but instead had a discussion with my boss about the issues and was forthright about why I was considering moving on, along with the things I really love about the job and the company and why I felt I was in a catch-22.

    It was great. He agreed that my issues were totally valid and we came up with a plan to address them over the next couple months. I believe he was sincere in the apology and intention to make improvements – but it remains to be seen if the follow through happens. After all, I’ve heard it before. The difference is this was the first time I was direct about the situation being at the point that if it continues I will need to find another position.

    He seemed to appreciate the heads up that it had reached this point while there was still time to rectify things.

    Since we now have a working list of changes which need to be made, and a mutually agreed upon firm time-line documented I feel better about seeing where this goes. If nothing changes at least I won’t have the guilt about it being a blindside when I decide to resign – but if things improve as promised I won’t have to, and I would definitely prefer that win-win.

    Besides – I have a couple of projects in the works which I want to see through to completion over the next two months. They’ll look good on my resume if I need it.

    Thanks for all the great advice – the comments were super helpful.

    1. OP

      It’s actually been great – even though nothing has tangibly changed yet. Just the act of putting this on the table has improved my attitude immensely – kind of drained the abscess of resentment.

      Actually, it was more than putting it on the table – it was the fact that he considered the issues and agreed my problems were totally legit and owned his own part in them. I’m not one for touchy-feely psychobabble normally…but there was something about being validated that really helped. Something I will keep in mind during my career (where ever that takes me) when I’m on the other side of the table.

      Although, I know for a fact that if I had tried this at my last company I would have been walked out immediately. There are some employers out there where any hint that you may consider leaving for any reason is seen as traitorous.

      I was pretty sure that wasn’t the case here, but still having seen it other places I wasn’t able to do it until I was at the point where I was 100% okay with immediate termination. The stakes just aren’t as high when you’re ready to go.

  12. EJ

    A spreadsheet would have been a wonderful idea – I did it a bit differently. My supervisor and I set up a short 15-20 minute meeting and went over everything that needed to be taken care of. By my last day, I actually got to leave a bit early as I gave 2-months notice, I really had everything buckled down. The last day I basically just cleaned out my desk – which, yes, did take a day (I also did a good cleaning).

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