Even with low unemployment, a shallow labor pool, and employers struggling to fill vacant positions and retain good employees, workers must not allow themselves to grow arrogant. Markets are cyclical: this year we have a worker’s market, next year we may have an employer’s market.

However, no job lasts forever. We have long since outgrown the expectation of lifetime employment and accepted a new conventional reality of a career being made of multiple jobs. That new understanding requires knowing when to move on. Regardless of the reason, resignation on good terms secures goodwill with your former employer and with future employers. Let’s be honest: no matter how tight the job market, employers still hold most of the power. Therefore, it remains in your best interest to avoid unloading gripes and complaints and to remain kind, polite, and above all professional.

Why write a resignation letter?

A pile of regrets quickly crushes the immediate gratification of shouting “I quit!” and storming out the door. No matter how disgusted, angry, depressed, or frustrated you are, a polite letter of resignation preserves the civilities. By taking the higher ground of good manners, you leave the door open for a good reference.

The resignation letter serves as your official notice that you voluntarily quit. Submitted in advance of your last day of employment—typically two weeks is deemed courteous—the letter not only alerts the human resources department of your pending, permanent absence but gives the company a window of time in which to find a replacement and notify project teams and clients whom your departure will affect.

The courtesy of a resignation letter serves as a reminder that your departure affects more than just one person.

What should a resignation letter contain?

Like good cover letters, good resignation letters get to the point while remaining polite. This is not the Great American Novel and no place for expository description. Monster.com offers a concise list of elements to include in a formal letter of resignation. Forbes and The Muse separate the resignation letter in less concrete elements, but with more helpful descriptions. Whether or not you shared with your boss why you’re leaving, the letter should include:

  • An explicit declaration of your intent to leave employment. In this declaration, include the formal title of your position and the company name.
  • The last day of your employment with the company. Yes, use the full date: day, month, and year. Do not use vague terms such as “two weeks from now” or “next month.” If you have an employment contract that specifies a longer period of notice, ensure you fulfill the terms of that contract. Generally, higher positions require more advance notice.
  • An expression of gratitude and lessons learned. Even if you loathe your job and your boss, include a thank-you for the opportunity to work for the company. Remember, you were once grateful for being hired. Try to remember that gratitude and mention what you learned working that job or what you enjoyed. You need not use effusive language or wrack your brain to come up with a long list: quick reference to a few things suffices.
  • An offer to assist with the transition from the expert (you) to the person assigned to fill the vacancy you leave behind. Don’t promise what you cannot deliver; however, a simple statement that you’ll be happy to answer some questions or smooth the transition shows your soon-to-be ex-employer that you are a true professional.

Monster.com advises inclusion of your contact information, just in case you leave something behind, if someone at the company wishes to refer business to you, or your replacement has questions about how to do the job. You may also wish to include a statement requesting that the human resources department notify you of any accrued benefits due to you, such as unused vacation leave.

Print or email?

The ideal process for resignation begins with two steps: a private conversation with your boss followed by submittal of a formal letter of resignation. However, circumstances such as remote employment and sudden illness or catastrophic injury may prohibit face-to-face meetings and dictate abrupt departure. The Balance advises that an in-person meeting or telephone conversation be the default options for suddenly quitting the job; however, if neither of those options is feasible and you alert the company via email, exercise the same courtesies as in a formal letter of resignation with three exceptions: specific subject line, additional recipients, and less detail. 

Be succinct, not clever, especially in the subject line of the message. Simply enter something like “Resignation – Your Name” keeps the topic clear and professional, rather than showing off your love of science fiction parody by typing “So long, and thanks for all the fish.” Copy the letter to human resources personnel. As with a one-page printed letter, keep your email message brief and include only as much detail as absolutely necessary.

Remember the keywords: polite and professional. After all, you want to leave a good impression just in case you need that company to provide a complimentary reference to a prospective new employer.

Honest or tactful?

Especially if you’re fed up with the job, resist the temptation to blast your boss with angry statements as to why you quit. An explanation as to reasons you’re leaving the company really isn’t necessary, although it could be perceived as a nice gesture, especially if the reason for quitting concerns retirement, maternity leave, personal reasons, activation of military duty, or acceptance of a new position with another company. Regardless of the reason, if you include this in your letter of resignation, then keep it general and succinct. Wikihow suggests ways to inform your boss why you’re quitting.

Especially if you’re leaving for retirement or for personal reasons, express your availability and willingness to help train the person who will be doing your job. If you suspect that you’ve been training your replacement, make the offer anyway. Remember, the new hire’s not responsible for the company’s perfidy.

Should you honestly believe your micromanaging, abusive jerk of a boss deserves neither kind words nor praise, at least observe the common courtesy of a simple thank-you, such as: “Thank you for the opportunity to work at company name and for everything I have learned to ensure success in future endeavors.”

Tact need not be dishonest. The above example is polite and glosses over the reality that everything you learned at the old job taught you what not to do or endure at your new job. In other words: wisdom comes through experience acquired from bad judgment.

What if you’ve been fired?

Debate exists on whether a formal letter should follow termination of employment if the company severs its connection with you. Writing for Quora, Robert Charles Lee notes specific circumstances which merit letters:

  • End of contract. If your employment has a fixed expiration date, confirm it in a polite letter stating (or reminding) that your contract with the company terminates. Provide the specific date and include the date on which employment began and the position you held. Be sure to request notification of any accrued benefits and mention your willingness to consider future employment opportunities with the company if you care to work there again.
  • Redundancy. Whether your company merged with another or straitened financial circumstances dictate layoffs for continued operation, a suddenly redundant employee preserves his or her dignity and leaves a good impression by writing a polite letter of acknowledgment and gratitude for past employment.
  • Reasonable termination. Particularly in a work-at-will state or in a non-union job, this covers most terminations of employment. Unless you can prove that your termination is unlawful, don’t mention the reasons for the end of your employment. This letter simply confirms your freedom by acknowledging the parting of ways and the date of termination.
  • Wrongful termination. Should this occur—and you’d better have the incontrovertible evidence to prove it—keep your letter neutral and polite. Acknowledge the termination, the date your employment ended, and state the apparent reason if there was one. Give the gory details and evidence of your wrongful termination to your attorney.

Regardless of the reason for termination, a civil, mature response highlights your professionalism, especially if your boss behaved badly.

Like financial cycles—bull and bear markets—employment markets cycle, too from employers scrambling to fill positions to workers vying for a dearth of available jobs. Eventually, some aspect of regional or global commerce will collapse and the market will eliminate jobs. Other jobs will arise to replace them, although those jobs may not equal the ones lost. Successful transition from one job to another requires maturity and professionalism. This means acknowledging the opportunities given to you with gratitude and moving forward to take advantage of new opportunities.