Burning Professional Bridges – Doesn’t matter or Don’t do it?

We’ve all heard the expression “don’t burn professional bridges.” Professional Development Strategies personally agrees that burning professional bridges is a bad idea but to our surprise apparently not everyone thinks it’s as true as it used to be. A while ago, I was looking at a discussion about this topic on the Kontrary website. Kontrary offers “a different take on careers, money, and life for ambitious and high-performing professionals.” According to Kontrary, “the advice not to burn bridges is outdated” and here are their five reasons why:

1) You’ll change careers too often for it to matter.

2) Your old boss won’t help you.

3) You won’t need a reference.

4) You can have an enemy (or two).

5) You can start over.

While there may be a degree of truth to some of their reasons, Professional Development Strategies take a contrary position to that offered by Kontrary.

1) Kontrary: “You’ll change careers too often for it to matter.”

Professional Development Strategies: Yes, it’s true that people change jobs more often than they used to and very few people now work at the same company for their entire career. However, the mere fact that one changes careers, jobs or cities doesn’t immediately negate the people you worked with at your former company, the relationships you built in that company or the work that you did there which often spans the globe.

Remember, while you may change jobs, careers or locations so do the people you worked with at your former company. Several real employment related scenarios immediately come to mind:

Scenario # 1: Thinking that you’ve left your former company, and whatever issues you had there, far behind… the next thing you know the former Executive Vice President of your old company is now the new Executive Vice President of the company you’re now working for.

Scenario # 2: You leave your company to go to work for another company in the same industry. You like your job and the company. Thinking the issues associated with the people at your former employer are old news… the company you’re now working for is sold to the one you just left.

Sound farfetched? Both these scenarios happen more often than you’d think.

2) Kontrary: “Your old boss won’t help you.”

Professional Development Strategies: This may be true but can they hurt you? Absolutely! Your old boss may never lift a finger to do so but the possibility exists and has happened to more than one person. While it may seem okay in your mind to part on bad terms because you’re “moving on…” it’s really not that difficult to be “blacklisted” (intentionally or unintentionally) in an industry no matter how far away you move.

Business is more global now than it ever used to be and given the advances in social media apps we’re also more connected personally and professionally than ever before no matter what industry we work in. I can’t tell you how many times someone has called or e-mailed me asking me if I know of someone else in an industry I’ve worked in or another related one. If the individual has burned professional bridges while walking out the door… the response most people give will never be a positive one.

But who says your old boss won’t help you? How you leave an employer, the notice you provide, the manner in which you conduct yourself on the way out the door and what you say about your former employer publicly will shape the kind of assistance you may get from your former company, or boss, down the road. Consider this scenario:

Disgruntled employee “A” leaves company “B.” As a former employee, “A” goes out on the Internet and writes derogatory comments about the company, their management, how they treat employees and their negative experience with the company in blogs, chat rooms and forums. “A” then goes out and applies for a job with company “C.” Company C is conducting pre-employment due diligence on “A” and finds posts, blogs and forum comments believed to be written by “A” about her employment with “B.” Thinking about the things “A” has written, Company C decides not to hire “A” because they don’t feel “A” is a good fit for their company.

Think it doesn’t matter? It’s a really small world out there… what you say, where you say it and who you say it to matters, no matter what industry you work in. Consider these survey results from careerbuilder.com

In a June 2009 survey of 2,600 companies performed by CareerBuilder.com, 45% of employers stated that they used social media to pre-screen job applicants.1 Of the employers that said they pre-screened applicants through social media, 35% admitted that they reviewed content on social media sites which caused them to disregard a job applicant for employment. Examples of social media content that employers’ admitted will influence them to take a job applicant off of the “potential hire” list include:

  • Posting provocative or inappropriate photographs or information (53%)
  • Posting images that showed them drinking alcohol or using illicit drugs (44%)
  • Making negative comments about their previous employer, coworkers, or clients (35%)
  • Demonstrating poor communication skills (29%)
  • Posting discriminatory comments (26%)
  • Lying about their qualifications or accomplishments (24%)
  • Sharing confidential information concerning a previous employer (20%).

3) Kontrary: “You won’t need a reference.”

Professional Development Strategies: Never say never. You may not need a reference now, this month or even this year but employment verification and professional networking are another story…someday someone will be verifying employment even after you’ve moved to a new industry, city or job and how you handled yourself personally and professionally when you walked out the door at your last employer may come back to help, hinder or haunt you even years down the road. This also applies to professional networking you may be doing while looking for a new position. According to Maureen Alley, not burning bridges is an important part of the professional networking and job search process.

If the old adage is true “it’s not what you know but who you know…” the bridges you burned with management, co-workers and your former boss when walking out the door immediately slam the door shut on any professional networking opportunities which might prove extremely valuable down the road in securing a position you really want.

Never is a long time! Professional history has a funny way of catching up with us down the road…. When it’s least expected

4) You can have an enemy (or two).

Professional Development Strategies: True, but why would you want to? We agree that we’re not always “going to just get along and be friends…” but creating professional enemies when it’s not necessary is avoidable in most instances.

You’re not going to get along with everyone you work with but mitigate potential professional and career damage where possible to avoid creating enemies.

5) Kontrary: “You can start over.”

Professional Development Strategies: We absolutely agree! However, it may be easier to start over with professional resources, people and companies firmly entrenched in your corner vs. going it alone because you’ve burnt professional bridges all over the place thinking it doesn’t matter.

Generally, the more people you have in your corner when starting over the better the professional outcome will usually be.

When talking about burning professional bridges, we acknowledge that bad situations are bad situations… no matter how you slice them. However, in this difficult economy and extremely competitive employment market, employees need every strategic competitive advantage they can get. Professional Development Strategies advises clients to: do everything possible to maintain positive professional relationships, handle yourself with class, always take the high road and end employment professionally where there’s an opportunity to do so.

Clearly, that isn’t always possible because things just don’t always work out as we’d like them to. However, when it’s within your control to do so avoid standing at the end of the bridge with gasoline and a lighter in your hand because you never know when you may really need the person standing at the other end with a fire extinguisher!









Dan Draz