The expression to ‘burn your bridges’ comes from an advancing army doing just that: burning the bridges behind them, so that there was no possibility of retreat. The soldiers would know that there was no going back.
We use the expression today to similarly mean leaving a situation in such a way that there is no possibility of returning to it.
For example, here’s a story we all love. The guy whose job is terrible, and boss is a tool, finally quitting in a dramatic way. Maybe leaping up on the boss’s desk, lighting a cigar, dropping his pants and mooning the guy with “I quit” written on his cheeks.
It’s fun to picture the look on the manager’s face as his now ex-employee buttons up and walks out the door for the last time, high-fiving coworkers on the way out. There’s no going back.
You know what would be a really bad career move? Doing something like that. Not burning your bridges at work isn’t about going back, it is about career advancement.
Last impressions can be just as important as first impressions – and they can haunt you for longer. You might think that since you never plan to use that tool of a boss as a reference anyway, what’s the harm?
The harm is to your professional reputation, and this is one of the most important career assets you have. This is the impression you leave on coworkers, managers, clients and partners throughout your career. The more people out there who think that you are pleasant to work with, motivated, talented, and conscientious, the more successful you will be.
Those people form your professional network. They can refer you to new jobs, recommend you to potential employers, and support you throughout your career journey. The best part is, all you have to do to cultivate this professional reputation is show up on time, work hard, and be nice at every job. (Oh, and don’t lose your cool and burn your bridges.)
Think about it. Even if you weren’t going to use that particular manager as a reference, how will everyone else at the company feel about you if you mooned the boss on your way out? Even if they enjoyed working with you – and some of them may have enjoyed the stunt – would they recommend working with you again? Probably not. They’ve seen you blow up and act unprofessionally. People would be reluctant to put their own reputation on the line by referring you to a new employer.
Also, potential employers will check more than your official references. They will ask around. They’ll talk to anyone they know who may have worked with you. Your reputation matters. (See: Your references aren’t who you think they are.)
Burning your bridges in the spur of the moment can feel emotionally satisfying, but you will almost certainly regret it once the moment has passed. That is why you should never make a decision when you are feeling emotional. Never hit send on an email that you wrote while you were angry. Write it, if it makes you feel better, but then save it. Walk away. Come back to it with a cooler head and reread it later, thinking about the pros and cons of sending it.
Angry outburst and responses always backfire. You’re cooler than that. So, be cool.
I was in the wrong job once. The manager who hired me was let go in a restructuring soon after, and the department heads that were left just didn’t like me. It was a bad fit. I stuck it out until I realized it wasn’t going to get any better, and then I resigned. Respectfully. I gave notice and sent out a kind email to my coworkers thanking them for the opportunity to be a part of the team.
Almost as soon as I was between jobs, a former VP of mine from a job years earlier contacted me. He had moved to a new company and wanted me to join him and take over the content of the website. Why? Because he had enjoyed working with me, and had heard nothing but good things about my progress in the years since. It was my network. My professional reputation.
Cultivate it. It’s a powerful thing. It starts from your very first job. Show up to work on time or even early every day demonstrating your enthusiasm and work ethic. Perform each task to the very best of your abilities, and take on as much extra work as you can. Help other people whether clients or coworkers at every chance you get. You will be creating a professional reputation for being a great employee and a leader.
And if you find yourself in a negative work situation, make a professional exit and leave a positive last impression. People laugh at the guy who mooned the boss, but they won’t hire him again. A job is just a job, but your career is a journey that lasts a lifetime. Stick to the high road.