A frustrated Washington state nurse exacted sweet revenge after she sent her employer a cake with icing that spelled out “I QUIT!!!”

Sarah Childers told ABC News she signed the cake—official notice she was leaving her job at a psychiatric hospital—in thick black frosting.

Childers’ novel resignation notice earlier this year (Jan.) attracted media attention and likely a load of chuckles, but nursing leaders say such unprofessional behavior not only leaves a negative impression; it may serve as an everlasting roadblock.

Burning bridges is a shortcut to career suicide in an era where hospitals increasingly merge, career trajectories place former colleagues and bosses back in your orbit, and workplace reputations can be gleaned through social media, experts say. 

Anger or revenge should never influence the way you leave a job, says Michelle Podlesni, RN, president of the National Nurses in Business Association. An emotional departure that leaves a negative impression “is not worth a lifetime of possible future dealings” with former coworkers who may cross your career path, says Podlesni, who is also CEO and president of Bloom Service Group, Inc.

“Major hospital systems are becoming corporate. You may not think you have anything to do with X hospital system, but then when you move to another state, X hospital system has bought Y hospital system, and now it’s XY hospital system and they have your records. There’s a reason for not burning bridges. Don’t do it,” advises Podlesni.

Weigh Your Decision

Before handing in your notice and easing out the door, take a deep breath and determine if you are at your tipping point, which can be reached in many ways, says Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, a board-certified nurse coach. Boredom and ennui may be factors in your unhappiness.

Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC

Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC

“Is the position no longer serving you or contributing to your personal and/or professional growth? We can outgrow jobs, and then our next option is to find a new opportunity that will support our professional development and the personal satisfaction we derive from our work,” he says.

Also, be sure to examine whether your workplace culture is supportive. “There is more attention being paid to workplace culture in the 21st century, and there’s really no reason to remain in a job where you’re treated poorly, bullied, harassed, or left to wither in a dead-end position. Advancement and growth are paramount in our careers, and a job or employer that offer no ability to move vertically may be holding you back from achieving your potential. We can become complacent in our work, and we must always be on the lookout for opportunities to advance, elevate, and pivot in a new direction,” Carlson says.

When you’ve lost your peace of mind, it’s time to go, argues Podlesni. “Your internal GPS is off kilter and it doesn’t look like it will be on course. You start to doubt the very profession you wanted to be in.”

The first step is to be objective and stop reacting emotionally to the situation, which Podlesni has done several times during her 25 year plus career, which has included health care data analysis and medical cost-containment. “This is the time to really kick in the nursing process that we all know,” she says. “Instead of a nursing care plan, it is our care plan. This is the time to assess and analyze the situation.”

“It could be as simple as not thriving in that job function,” Podlesni says. “You may not want to be an ER nurse or a med-surg nurse. It could be a desire to change specialties or it could be you are frustrated in that you are not recognizing your potential. Maybe you have a desire to stretch in a role that has more responsibility, more management, and you feel stuck. You could find out nursing is not what you envisioned.”

Before resigning, consider making a table listing what’s important, which may include work-life balance, salary, stress level, and potential career advancement. The table should compare your current job to what you want in a potential move, says Kate Tulenko, MD, MPH, MPhil, a physician and global health specialist.

“There should be a clear-minded evaluation of the pros and cons of each job,” says Tulenko, who is also vice president of health systems innovation at IntraHealth International. “Do an analysis of the pros and cons of each of the jobs in all of those areas.”

Be honest about your own shortcomings and whether you play a role in your unhappiness, experts say. “If you do indeed leave, is there any baggage you’ll be taking with you to your next position? Is there some change in perspective that you may need to adopt?” says Carlson.

First Steps

After deciding to resign, give your immediate supervisor appropriate notice in writing. For a typical nursing staff position, that’s two weeks notice. Provide four weeks notice if you hold a management role. Before a vacation or holiday season, consider giving three or four weeks notice to help out the units, says Podlesni.

Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, CSP

Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, CSP

Notify your immediate supervisor in person, if possible. A phone call is the next preferred method of communication, says Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, CSP, author of Falling Together: How to Find Balance, Joy, and Meaningful Change When Your Life Seems to Be Falling Apart. Ideally, a typed, hard copy letter should be submitted at the time of resignation, Cardillo says.

Leave a good impression behind by not gossiping about any employee who factored in your decision to depart, experts say. When coworkers ask why you are moving on, share the same response. And handle your outstanding responsibilities by making direct reports aware of any projects that need to be completed or transitioned to your replacement before leaving.

“Meet with your supervisor or manager and present a list of the things that you handle on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annual basis,” says Carlson. “Write up suggestions for how to move forward on any projects still underway. If you have time, create a narrative to hand off for your replacement, detailing outstanding issues that will require immediate attention.”

Consider capturing such information in a table. Writing a note may be time consuming since many people are either poor writers, don’t like writing, or fear writing, says Tulenko.

“Maybe you were supposed to finish a quality assessment or you were supposed to train some nurses. List those ongoing responsibilities as well as those that are one-off. Put all of that in the table, include what the status is, and who you plan to transition [tasks] to, and what you are going to do before you leave. Do that with every task and have it in the chart. Go over it with your manager. Then carry out your actions before you leave,” Tulenko says.

Before bidding farewells, exchange contact information with fellow employees with whom you have a good rapport. Get connected on LinkedIn and exchange testimonials.

Handling Honesty

One thorny topic is whether to disclose the real reasons for leaving. Opinions vary.

“You don’t want to burn any bridges, but you also want to be authentic,” advises Carlson. “It all depends with whom you’re speaking and why they need to know the details. Try to focus on the positive, and be careful about putting anything disparaging about your employer in writing.”

Authenticity and honesty matter, says Carlson. “An effective exit interview reveals the deeper reasons behind your leaving, as well as your suggestions for how the company or employer can improve the potential for your successor’s success. Three hundred and sixty-degree feedback can be priceless for an employer willing to hear it.”

Your response may depend on your situation, says Cardillo. “If your reason for leaving is something benign such as the fact that you are relocating, have decided to change specialties, or are looking for a different schedule, it’s OK to state that. If you’re leaving because you don’t care for the culture of the department or employer or don’t get along with your supervisor, you can simply say that you have decided to move on and try something new to broaden your horizons.”

Being honest doesn’t mean you will attack someone personally, says Podlesni. Nurses have to think about what gives them a sense of peace, fulfillment, and purpose. If those things aren’t being met that is what you say, not “This place is crazy and there are too many patients. Address those things in a constructive way…so that management can address the issues.”

Kate Tulenko, MD, MPH, MPhil

Kate Tulenko, MD, MPH, MPhil

Tulenko disagrees about the role of honesty as you head out of your former employer’s door one final time.

“You should never tell the real truth. This is the case where being fully and brutally honest is just going to hurt you, and the people you are brutally honest to are unlikely to change,” she says.

If you have any constructive suggestions, give those to your manager or the HR person or head of nursing. Say it in a positive way “rather than ‘you guys are such bad managers and you don’t listen to your nurses.’ This is not the time to be brutally honest. It’s difficult for people because they feel like they are lying or being deceitful, but I see very little benefit to full out honesty as you’re leaving,” says Tulenko.

“Remember that in the future when you’re looking for the next job, people are going to call your former employer. Even if someone did not provide a reference, we’ll call the HR department or the former employer.

“Often staff knows one another and someone will say, ‘This person came from that instituition. Could you ask your friend at that institution what people thought of her?’ And people say, ‘Well, wow, she ripped everyone a new one on her way out.’ That word gets around, there is no doubt about that.”

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Robin Farmer

Robin Farmer covers health, business, and education as a freelance journalist. Visit her online at www.RobinFarmerWrites.com.

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