Take Steps to Protect Your Reputation

How we arrive is a good predictor of how we will be received at a new job. That’s why we’re so careful to put our best foot forward in our first days. We’re alert to how early we show up at the office and how late we stay. We’re cautious about how we speak to our new colleagues, not wishing to rub people the wrong way.

We act with one eye on our actual job and the other on the impression we’re making. This self-consciousness fades as we find our bearings and settle into a routine. If only people paid as much attention to their departure as they do to their arrival.

Few events create more immediate damage to your spirit than leaving a job you love. Sometimes the departure is a brutal firing. Sometimes you’re part of a mass layoff. Sometimes it’s a slow death, through a demotion, or you’re squeezed out because you don’t have anything to do. Whatever the cause, it not only dings and bruises your psyche, it may damage your reputation.

No matter how you dress up a dismissal, you still have to deal with the perception that something went wrong. But it doesn’t have to be bad if you have a pre-exit strategy.

When an employee is surprised about getting fired, the surprise is usually management’s fault. Either the boss didn’t train the employee well or didn’t provide adequate warning via reviews. However, the employee can shoulder some of the responsibility. Given the anxiety employees often feel about job security, there’s no excuse for not seeing bad news coming or not being prepared for the worst.

When we take our leave of a job, either we jump or we are pushed. And we do it either on our way up or on our way down. These forces — jump vs. push, up vs. down — create an interesting dynamic that lays out our options.

The vertical line in this matrix tracks how you’re perceived at work. It’s your honest assessment of whether you are riding a wave of success or feel that you’ve fallen behind. Is your career trajectory pointing up or down? The horizontal line lays out your options. Leaving a job is either your choice or someone else’s. The resulting four quadrants identify the reasons behind most departures from a job. Which quadrant do you belong in?

Hopefully, you place yourself above the horizontal line, not below it — and certainly not in the lower-right quadrant, where you’re not performing well and everyone knows it. You want your career to be ascending.

That means you’re desirable to other employers. It means you have the option to jump to a better job. But don’t be fooled: It’s no guarantee that you’re invulnerable. I’ve seen a few unfortunate cases where great people were unfairly squeezed out of their jobs precisely because they were on the way up and were perceived as a threat to their superiors.

It also happens frequently after a merger or acquisition when redundancies in the merged operations send many capable people packing. If you suspect you’re in this quadrant — in danger of getting pushed out when you’re at the top of your game — you need an honest appraisal of how secure your boss feels about his or her job. Are you considered an asset or a threat? If you are part of a merger, does the new organization recognize your talent?

The lower-left quadrant may be the trickiest to negotiate. You’re not doing well, so you jump before you get pushed out. Of course, you need something to jump to. The key factor here is appreciating that even though you’re down in your company’s eyes, the rest of the world may not have caught up to that fact.

That discrepancy between your reputation inside the company and outside is a market anomaly that can work to your advantage. But you have to act swiftly. The window doesn’t stay open forever.

To protect your reputation, take “preventative medicine” to ensure it doesn’t get damaged. Deciding whether to stay in an organization or go is usually tough. Deciding to jump rather than be pushed out is easy.