As I transitioned from job to job early in my career, I made the one mistake that working women are told repeatedly to avoid: I burned some bridges.
But you know what? My career didn’t go up in smoke and neither did my reputation. In fact, I learned some lessons that allowed me to rise from the ashes of my younger self into a stronger, better employee—and I’d argue, person. Here’s how: Know when to pivot.
Two days before I was supposed to start as a dean’s assistant at a university, I received an offer from another organization—and I took it.
Did I look wishy-washy and indecisive? Probably.
I called the initial employer and explained my situation. The secondary position was a much better fit; it offered me a chance to build up my graphic design skills, work directly with hundreds of local businesses, and tackle unique writing projects. He said that he understood. I felt relieved, and glad that I had trusted my gut to change paths at the last minute.
A year later, the bet paid off. The job I ended up taking allowed me to strengthen my creative abilities as well as heighten my passion for community outreach, both of which served as key assets in later positions throughout my career. Being willing to shift directions at a moment’s notice and staying open to other routes led to immense growth as a young professional—even if I didn’t stay true to my initial word.
Acknowledge your limits.
I once worked at a small nonprofit where I enjoyed my daily duties…and also cried every single day. Several of my coworkers excelled at passive-aggressive bullying, and as the newest, youngest employee, I had no idea how to handle such belittling behavior. In turn, I dreaded going to work each morning. I became a shadow of my creative self: I kept quiet in meetings, closed my office door whenever possible, and ducked out at exactly 5:00 p.m. every day.
When I finally worked up the nerve to tell my boss how I felt, he recommended that I “take the high road” and “try not to ruffle any feathers.” (Um, OK.) I wanted to quit a million times, save for the little voice in the back of my mind shouting: be grateful for the paycheck, pay your dues, suck it up! So that’s what I did, for almost two years.
I spent approximately 730 days of my one wild and precious life on tense tears, constant disrespect, rude remarks, and scornful colleagues—when I should have simply walked away. It wasn’t worth it; in fact, no job is worth the price of your sanity and health. Only you know when too much is too much.
Be honest (within reason).
During an exit interview, my employer asked: “Do you have any feedback for us?” Gulp. I took a deep breath. Scripted answers lay on the tip of my tongue, cliché responses like, “Working here has been a great opportunity” and “I’ve learned so much from all of you” and “I’m excited for a new challenge.”
Instead, I was honest. I explained that I had hoped to stay, but there were no opportunities for advancement on the horizon. I mentioned the lack of professional development support and noted the low pay of the position. And then, I told him that I didn’t think I was a good cultural fit with the rest of the team.
Now, many experts recommend sealed lips during an exit interview on the premise that employers and HR departments don’t really want to hear your reasons for leaving. And that’s true, to an extent. You never know when you might run into a person or line of work in the future, so it is smart to choose your words carefully and observe professional niceties. An exit interview isn’t the time to speak poorly about your coworkers or air all your dirty laundry.
However, you can be gracious and authentic at the same time. If there’s a reason you’re jumping ship, it’s fair to explain any issues behind that choice. If a colleague was out of line, it’s important to share that information accordingly. If there’s a way the company could improve going forward, it’s OK to offer those thoughts up. We so often err on the side of “nice” behavior as a mode of self-defense—nobody wants to get in trouble, nobody wants to have their words come back to haunt them—but tip-toeing around the truth actually doesn’t serve anyone.
Learn what NOT to do.
A co-worker once lectured me for relying too heavily on emails to communicate with my team. I remember thinking of her as stodgy and old-fashioned, out of touch with modernity and technology. I rolled my eyes as she walked away and fanned indignant flames over the fact that I got in trouble for merely being efficient. It didn’t help that the two of us straight up disliked each other.
Except she was right. I did depend on email, though I refused to admit it at the time. I used email as a crutch in order to find the perfect set of words to solve a tricky problem or deliver a status update; hiding behind words on a screen helped me feel more confident around my peers. Instead of considering her advice, I got caught up in my own sense of ego and pride.
Years later, I walked into a coffee shop and cringed as I saw that exact same co-worker sitting a few paces away from me. For a split second, I considered pretending like I hadn’t seen her, but then I swallowed my pride and walked over to say a quick hello. It was awkward, and then it was over. We certainly weren’t ever going to be friends, and yet, she taught me an important lesson about personal relationships. Because of her, I now realize how beneficial a quick phone call or a face-to-face conversation can be. No email can accurately catch the tone and cadence of someone’s voice, just as no measure of efficiency beats the value of real-time connection.
If you’ve burned bridges over the course of your career, refrain from playing the victim or assuming all is lost. Chalk up it up to experience. Let your mistakes guide you to become a better version of yourself, at work and in general, and know that every step backward eventually allows you to move two paces forward.