We are often told not to “burn bridges,” but what does that mean for a young professional? In my opinion, the most important way is to be careful about which words are selected when talking about our colleagues and bosses. This becomes especially important when changing jobs.
What kind of bridges are we talking about? The bridges that lead to new positions in your industry, recommendations for future jobs, and maybe even collaboration on future projects. It could also be hiring interns or new staff who worked with your previous employer, or co-authoring studies or books on your shared topic area.
My mother taught me not to say anything unless it is positive. The Bible teaches that “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). That’s great advice, but how can it be applied when you are laid off or have a conflict with a colleague? The answer is that is takes discipline and self-control. You can distinguish yourself by being a respectful person who keeps his or her mouth shut in key situations. You can’t always choose your situation (ie. lay off), but you can choose your words.
Gossip in the workplace is very tempting because we feel like we have to share the latest tidbit in order to remain popular and well-liked in the office. Isn’t it ironic, then, that the people in your office who are the most liked tend to be the ones who gossip the least? A great way to burn bridges is by gossiping about your boss or former bosses. Even worse is when you start rumors or spread false information or hear-say.
Another way to burn bridges is to use proprietary information from a previous employer at a new job. In the nonprofit sector, this could include using mailing lists from previous organizations to raise money for a different organization, or using email or stationary for an inappropriate cause. It could also include not returning valuable documents to the organization when your internship or job ends. Putting down hours on your time sheet that you did not work is in this category as well.
In a positive sense, you can build bridges by highlighting positive aspects about former employers, and looking for opportunities to collaborate. Maybe you refer people to that organization’s services when appropriate, or you go back and volunteer for an event. You can still seek advice from your former colleagues, and maintain relationships that may create bridges in the future that you don’t anticipate now. Distinguish yourself by building bridges, not burning them.
Roger Custer is Executive Director of America’s Future Foundation
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