Creating an exit strategy to leave a job gracefully

September 30, 2021, 4:01 PM UTC

Q: I recently put in a monthlong notice for my job of four years after accepting a position elsewhere—partly because my former workplace was getting so toxic I basically did a Hail Mary before I was ready for work each day. Now, I only have two weeks left at my old job—and I’m wondering if I should skip them. Putting my resignation in hasn’t stopped me from getting blamed, morally attacked, etc. I can’t sleep at night, I have panic attacks around my clients. I have no benefits to lose, and I’m not sure I would get a good reference regardless of what I do. Do I stick around for my last two weeks? Or am I only hurting myself by trying to stay?

—Melissa

Dear Melissa, 

Many people give more than two weeks’ notice when they’re leaving a job because they want to be courteous and professional to the team they’re leaving. But here’s the thing: What you think might be good for the company isn’t necessarily good for you. When you’re working with people who don’t treat you professionally, even when they need to work with you, it’s unlikely they’re going to treat you better once you’ve signaled you’re moving on.

Consider these last two weeks—should you choose to stick around—not so much as something you need to grin and bear but as an opportunity for you to be in control of your narrative. Focus on your needs and actively manage yourself out of this job. Your role changes after you give notice, and your mindset should, too. Instead of treating every day until your last day like it’s any other day at work, be tactical about how you’re spending your time. 

Working somewhere toxic is terrible. One of the worst parts is how it can make us question ourselves, in a situation where unhealthy behavior is normalized and abusive colleagues maintain power over our professional lives. 

You asked if leaving before your planned last day will hurt you. I’ve been thinking about this in two different ways: How it might negatively affect you personally (as in your overall well-being); and how it might impact your career, including your future jobs and your reputation in your industry. 

You’ve already got another job lined up, which is clearly shifting your perspective on how much you need this job now. I’m not surprised that you’re ready to jump ship before you’ve finished your time there. Research shows that once employees who work in abusive situations have given notice, they feel more empowered to do things they haven’t done before, such as offering more negative feedback or simply not showing up to work at all. While those things may feel empowering in the moment—and even justified—they can have negative long-term consequences for your career. 

Based on what you’ve shared with me, it sounds like if you keep going as is, the rest of the time that you’re at this job is going to feel pretty tough. You need to take action to protect yourself from how this job is affecting you today, and also consider how your current colleagues might impact your career in the future. I recommend that you seriously consider staying through the duration of your final two weeks, and focus on how to leave as gracefully as possible without sacrificing your mental health.

While staying for the next two weeks will be difficult, it will improve your chances of getting a reference (which seems like it’s still a possibility now). Whether or not you use someone from this place as a reference, future employers can still reach out to your past employer to ask about your time working there. Hiring managers sometimes want to ask deeper questions rather than just confirming whether you worked somewhere, especially when they’re weighing you against other final candidates. Hearing that you broke a commitment and left before you planned is something that might lead future employers to think less well of you.  

Crucially, if you finish your time there, you’ll have a chance to connect with colleagues and outside contacts you care about, to shape how they see you. Prioritize the coworkers you have a good relationship with so that in your final weeks, you minimize the energy you’re giving to the drama and spend more time connecting with people who you might cross paths with in the future. 

Also think about who might be a reference in the future if your supervisor isn’t an option. You didn’t need the reference for the job you just got, but that’s likely because you’re still working at your current job—many employers understand that job applicants don’t want to tip their hand to current employers before they get an offer. But the next time you apply somewhere, that won’t be the case, and four years at one employer is significant in your work history. Start with people you’ve worked with at a senior level, include people you are peers with who can speak to your accomplishments or working style, and make time for them. You can also talk to HR about what data they share with future employers. 

I reached out to Kerri Twigg, a career coach and author of bestselling book The Career Stories Method, to talk about the importance of having a narrative around your career and your exit. 

Kerri has more than 10 years of experience working with people transitioning jobs. She encourages her clients to think about their careers in terms of storytelling, which is a useful tool for highlighting your strengths and helping people understand what motivates you. It’s also a helpful framework for looking at your career differently and figuring out how to talk to different people about your transition.

“When people think about storytelling, they think just about the story that you tell externally, but actually, career transition starts with the internal story,” Kerri explained to me. “So the three most important stories that you want to examine are the story that you tell yourself, the story that other people tell about you and tell themselves, and then the story that you tell them.” 

Right now, it’s a critical time for you to shift the story you’re telling internally, from how terrible this place is that you’re escaping, to how excited you are by the new job and what it means for the next chapter of your career. This should also become your public story about why you’re leaving. It’s common for people in bad job situations to give different people different reasons for leaving, but it’s in your best interest to stay consistent and stick to one story so that becomes the dominant narrative. 

You also need to protect your energy by limiting the time you spend with negative people at work and things that are affecting your mental health. Don’t engage with the drama and pettiness. It might be tempting, but don’t process how bad this situation was with those coworkers. That will just feed the cycle of negativity. Try to offload the tasks that are upsetting you. Redirect stressful client calls to other colleagues if you can. If you can’t avoid the calls, think about how you can structure time around them to help yourself prep and reset after them. 

You also need to protect yourself from how this job might impact you in the future. Your best bet is to show that you did your job with professionalism until the end. Do the good faith work of handing things over to people who will pick up your work. Document where they can access information they need and things that you learned the hard way. Writing some of this down can help bring you some closure, as you process some of the things you’ve been holding on to from this job.  

“You are doing something for the company, you’re honoring your own work, you’re sharing your knowledge,” Kerri said. “Also, if it’s toxic and you’re not coming back, if you put it in that document, it doesn’t need to live in your brain anymore. So when you leave that job, you don’t need to carry it. You’re free of that information.”  

Taking control of your narrative will help you reframe your last couple weeks. And reaching out to outside contacts to share your positive outlook about how excited you are about your next step is a great way to own that narrative. Over the course of my last two weeks at my previous job, I booked calls with numerous partners and people whose work I admired. I shared with them what I was doing next, thanked them for the work that we’d done together, and assured them other people would be picking up my projects. They gave me great feedback about my work. Calls like this will give you input about your time there beyond what you’re hearing from your coworkers and perhaps offer something to look forward to on stressful days.

Your goal with talking to outside contacts isn’t to give them your version about how or why this workplace was toxic; it’s to focus on your future and where your career is going. You don’t want to be sour about the place you’re leaving. If you’re stressed out by the idea of making contact during these last two weeks, you can always reach out in the first few months after you’ve left your job to reconnect.

Keep in mind that people remember how you make them feel more than they remember anything else. Few people have regrets about being generous even to those who maybe don’t “deserve” it, Kerri told me. “The things that people regret are rarely that they were kind, cause there’s no shame in being kind. You drew the line, no one’s taking advantage of you now. The thing that people regret is ‘I was an asshole that last day.’” 

Rising above the drama to be kind to your colleagues might be challenging, but it’s a long-term strategy that will pay off. 

Your other option—quitting without finishing your two weeks—is one I only recommend if you think the effects of this job on your mental health are so intense that you can’t make it through the workday. You mentioned panic attacks, and I don’t take that lightly. If your health is suffering so much that you’d take off work to deal with what’s going on, you should quit. If the work that you’re doing is negatively impacting your mental health to such a degree that you can’t do the work, it’s not worth your staying there. You should move on, and take some time in between this job and the next to recover a bit. Just remember, if you ghost before you said you’d finish up there, that will be a part of your legacy there. 

I do understand why you might have wanted to give extra notice, but we only owe our employers our work, in exchange for which they owe us pay. 

For now, I hope you protect your energy, tend to relationships with people who matter, and ignore the people who don’t. They won’t matter in the future, and they’re not worth your energy now. Once you leave, you might find my advice on how to start fresh in a new job after enduring a toxic workplace helpful. While you’re counting your last days, and before you get to your next job, be sure to take some time to celebrate this big moment of leaving this job and starting at a new place you’re excited about. You deserve it. 

Sending you lots of good vibes,
Jen

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