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Breaking up is hard to do

Doucette, Jeffrey N., DNP, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN, FACHE

doi: 10.1097/01.NUMA.0000557783.24802.4c
Department: Leadership Q&A
Free

Senior Vice President and CNO, Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals, Philadelphia, Pa.

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Q I recently left my employer and I'm really struggling with how to gracefully handle an exit from an organization that I believe isn't doing the right thing by its leaders and employees. What advice do you have to help make this transition a little smoother?

I had a conversation with a nurse leader who was in a very similar situation not long ago. It's been said that people don't leave organizations, they leave leaders. In many cases, I believe this to be true. However, there are cultures where insidious negative behaviors, overt coercion, bullying, and poor performance are tolerated. The difficult question is now that you've exited a seemingly toxic culture, what do you do about it?

The best piece of advice I've ever been given in a tough situation is to take the high road. There's always less traffic there! In the recent conversation with my colleague, she was adamant that she wanted to “expose her previous employer for the horrible place it is.” She shared with me that she was thinking about writing an op-ed for the local paper outlining the cultural problems and ongoing challenges with safety and quality. Although this may make her feel better in the short term, in the long term this approach will likely be more damaging to her reputation, especially if she remains in the community. If you leave an employer and have concerns about safety and quality, the best approach is to use existing reporting channels, such as the state department of health; various accrediting bodies like The Joint Commission; or an anonymous call to the organization's compliance hotline, which is generally staffed by a third party. Any of these avenues will provide some level of protection to the complainant, known as a whistleblower.

The next piece of advice is also critical: Burn no bridges. At the end of the day, you'll need a reference from your most recent employer and/or from someone in the organization. Although most companies only verify job title and dates of employment, we all know there's an informal network of behind-the-scenes conversations that happen, particularly in smaller communities where many leaders know each other. This practice isn't encouraged, but it would be foolhardy to think that it won't happen and won't impact your future employment opportunities. Always be respectful when exiting the organization and be especially careful when having conversations with your previous coworkers about the who, what, where, why, and how you left. Save those conversations for your closest confidants and family members.

Finally, know that even in what may seem the worst professional situation, there's always a light at the end of the tunnel and rarely is it a train! We've all been through highs and lows in our career, and we learn from these experiences. In the past, I've shared with readers a particularly difficult situation I was in many years ago as a new executive. The organizational culture wasn't a good fit for my leadership style and I left the organization after just 4 months, truly thinking my career was over. Rather than getting mired down in the minutia of all the issues and frustration, I tried to spend my time building a professional network and finding the next best thing. In the end, the issues I observed were brought to light and addressed, and it was a much more gratifying feeling in the long term to have been part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Leaving an employer is never easy. You build relationships and friendships over the years, and it can always be frightening and overwhelming to think about starting over again in a new role at a new organization. One of the most important decisions you'll ever make is knowing when the right time to exit an organization is and handling the transition with grace.

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