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The Business Etiquette of Leaving a Job as an Executive

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Summary: A brief guide of how to “wrap up” with your former employer before leaving.

Exercise proper business etiquette by “wrapping up” with your former employer before leaving.

An executive's reputation is their most important asset.

In the pressure cooker climate of competitive top management, an individual's character is quickly revealed. The one who folds in the heat of stress may get an important job, but will be unable to keep it. Neither brains nor technical knowledge assures success. Essentially an executive must combine talent with emotional stability and courage.


The individual who is let go because of a cutback, company shakeup, elimination of a department, or failure to satisfy superiors, is generally not in the middle of a highly important project when the dismissal notice comes. There are no real obligations to their former employer, beyond that of common courtesy. Management has usually planned how to allocate their work or has hired someone to replace them.

An executive losing out with the company may feel bitter or discouraged. While they may believe that they have no obligation to the employer, they still have obligations to themselves. Whatever their views of the company, they are wise to keep these to themselves. Prospective employers are generally not too receptive to sob stories from a job applicant that stress the unfair treatment or lack of opportunity received.

While an individual who has been released by their company may have no real obligations to it, there are certain rules of job etiquette that should be maintained:
  1. Opinions of former management should be kept personal and criticism of it or any recent associates should be avoided.
  2. If reasons for the dismissal are asked, reasons should be stated as objectively and briefly as possible.
  3. All information gathered while working for the former employer should be kept confidential. The executive who seeks to capitalize on secret knowledge gained at one firm by making it available to another may get away with it, however it is ill-advised because it is unlikely that they will ever be trusted again.


The executive who leaves a company because for a better job elsewhere is in a vastly different position from the individual who has been terminated. In contemporary society there is much talk and deep concern about “conflict of interests.” A person who changes jobs, even within industry, faces the following questions: What do I owe my past employer? What do I owe my new company? Where is the dividing line?

The extent of loyalty you owe to your old company vs. your obligations to your new employer largely depends on three things:
  1. The type of company you are joining
  2. The type of industry it is in
  3. The type of job you have

If you have confidential knowledge of the patents, processes, or sales plans of your company, you have no legal or moral right to put them at the disposal of a competitor. On the other hand, if you are going from a textile company to a chemical firm, you probably have no difficulties. The majority of executives have no real conflict of interest problems when they move. They take with them their skill, their knowledge, and their ability, but these are personal possessions. It is only when you are being hired because someone wants to make use of your knowledge of matters that is not yours to share, that you may be accused of violating the rules of conflict of interest.

What a former employer considers “disloyal” depends on their point of view. In certain cases, some companies try to avoid the problem of having special knowledge used against them by ex-employees by requiring executives to sign contracts stating that they will not engage in a related activity for a certain period of time after their contract expires.


Many successful companies make it a point to hire career minded executives and to follow a policy of promotion from within whenever possible. They sometimes make a special effort to indoctrinate executives with their philosophy of management and to require from them a loyalty pledge (written or unwritten) at the beginning of their employment. While such pledges may have no legal standing, they do impose more than usual moral obligations. When an executive leaves such a company, they usually sing its praises for the remainder of their business career and always maintain an affectionate loyalty to it.


Regardless of ethics, knowledge is difficult to forget. If you know how to do a job better and can save your company from financial losses by making use of your knowledge, should you refrain from doing so because your skill comes from experience gained elsewhere? The legal limitations on the right to apply knowledge gained from former employers may be clearly defined, but the moral questions can only be answered by your conscience. "Trade secrets" in the legal sense are not involved. You are vitally concerned with the success of your new employer, and owe them loyalty together with the maximum of your skill. You were hired for your ability, so it is up to you to determine the ethics of a particular situation.


Another problem that may face an executive who is moving to another company is whether or not to take key subordinates with them. Not only will their departure hurt the employer, but also stripping the company of other valuable people will hurt even more. Nevertheless, there are interests to consider. How a person answers this question depends on the individual’s attitudes.

Whether or not you are willing to raid a former company for executive personnel depends on your feeling toward it. If you admire the management and think you were fairly treated by it, you are not inclined to do anything that would cause conflict. On the other hand, if you dislike a former employer and consider their company badly run and a poor place to work, you probably think former associates are lucky to get opportunities elsewhere. Therefore, you have little hesitation about asking them to come to work for you.

As a general rule, it is common sense to refrain from committing widespread acts of executive piracy against a company where you were once employed. However, if there are one or two people in your old department who have been closely identified with you, the majority of executives think you have every right to offer them job opportunities if you need their services.


Companies have their individual philosophies about the extent of service they require from an executive who has given notice. Some firms think a person should clear up any assignments that may remain unfinished before they depart. Others want them to clear out as quickly as possible.

If you plan to leave your company, you are the best judge of its attitude and can best plan what to do. However, here is a suggestion: when you are setting a starting date with a new employer, make it flexible. You may think it will take you at least six weeks to clear up your work, but you may be surprised to find that your management has different ideas. Therefore, give your new company a deadline when you can begin, but make absolutely certain that, if necessary, you can start your assignment any time that you wish before that deadline.

There is no set rule to follow on how long you should plan to stay at your company after you have advised management that you are leaving, but you should be considerate and offer to complete any assignments you have started or to help break in your successor. How long this takes depends on the responsibility of your job and how quickly a substitute can take over.

Have a frank discussion with your superior and ask them when it will be most convenient for you to leave. You can state the maximum period you can stay. Your new employer should not be asked to wait an unreasonable length of time for you to report for work, and your present employer will probably wish to replace you as quickly as possible anyways.


What file material do you have the ethical right to take with you to a new job? This question is a matter of ethics.

Take what is legitimately yours. If you want material or papers belonging to the company, ask your superior if it is all right. Make sure you take only copies of any papers belonging to your employer. Be open. Offer to show your boss what you are taking, and make certain you have their permission before you do so.

  1. Give every courtesy and consideration to your old employer. Do not leave them short-handed or with loose ends trailing.
  2. Do not take any company papers, files, or other material from your employer without obtaining their permission to do so.
  3. Don't publicly run down, criticize, or comment adversely on a former employer regardless of your private opinion of them. Avoid personalities in commenting on your experiences with a former company.
  4. Show your appreciation to your old employer by doing anything you can to help them, unless this interferes with the successful performance of your present job.
  5. Never use information that you gained because you occupied a position of trust to the disadvantage of the company that gave you access to it.
  6. Use judgment in recruiting subordinates from a former employer. Key individuals who have been closely associated with you are probably regarded as "your team." But don't try to rob your former company of all of its key personnel.
  7. Give a fair and honest appraisal to the employees who will report to you on your new job before you bring in people from your old firm (or anywhere else) to replace them.
  8. Your personal integrity is more important to you than any other possession. Don't put opportunism ahead of it. Money, fame, or clout is hardly worth the price if they are purchased at the expense of character. An executive's reputation is the foundation of his lifetime career. Be loyal to people who have been loyal to you. If you let down subordinates, associates, or superiors to gain quick advantages, you are really letting yourself down. No matter how much ability, knowledge, or talent you have, you still depend on people for results. If they don't trust you, they will never give you wholehearted support and that is vital to your career.
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