Most companies have a notice period as part of their terms of employment, and these usually vary in length depending on your time at the company and your seniority. Some companies have a policy of very long notice periods to act as a deterrent for employees to leave, especially in specialist industries where finding replacements with the same skills and experience is difficult.
This contractual obligation acts as a guarantee against you just walking out the door, leaving your employer exposed by the gap you leave. On the other hand, if you work in a very sensitive area – like a trading floor or the R&D department of an IT company – you might find yourself escorted off the premises before your last words have died away.
It also offers you protection against being summarily dumped, with no income until you find another job. So it’s essentially a form of insurance policy for both employer and employee, and worth respecting as such.
Notice period law
This can be a complicated area, and lawyers make fortunes from the problems that can surround it. In general, though, make it your business to understand the issues as far as you can, and avoid taking any action that is likely to compromise your position. As a general rule, if you play it straight and work your notice, you should get all that you are due, in terms of salary, commission, bonuses, holiday allowance, and so on. If you wilfully break the terms of your notice period, you put all this at risk.
A few basic rules
Don’t burn any bridges when it can be avoided. You might need goodwill for references, you may want to come back later on, or you may find one of your former colleagues interviewing you for a job in years to come. Many industries are very close knit and a bad word that comes through a friend of a friend can harm your career. If you’re leaving because you are being treated unfairly and might want to take legal action, keep it under your hat. Quietly gather your evidence and look for a solicitor. Keep smiling, or you’ll lose the vital element of surprise.
If you can, get an agreement from someone in the company to act as a reference and keep in touch with your business contacts and mentors, not just your friends. Start a little black book of people who might help you later on in your career. You may be asked to keep your move to yourself to avoid creating morale problems. Always respect these requests, and protect your reputation for dignity and discretion.
Doing a deal
You may also be offered a deal over your notice period, accepting a shorter period in return for fewer benefits, or taking a pay-off to leave quickly. Always give these offers your full consideration and treat them in confidence.
‘Gardening leave’ is a dream way to leave a job, working out your notice, on holiday or pottering around at home. For the time of your notice period, you’re not allowed into work or to be employed by anybody else. It’s generally the preserve of senior executives who are sitting on a lot of critical strategic information or for any employee who is moving to a direct competitor that may be able to get their hands on confidential facts and figures.
After receiving a small token of your colleague’s appreciation and a speech from your manager, you may have to say a few words yourself. Don’t worry too much about this – a very quick ‘thank you’ is sufficient as you should have already spoken one-to-one with anyone you owe special gratitude. You should also send a quick email to your colleagues with contact details should anyone wish to get hold of you once you’ve left.
It’s traditional to head off to the local pub with your colleagues on your last day, and the occasion can be a good one for cementing friendships and business relationships. Be careful how you manage it though. A few hours in, your judgement may be a bit less clear, and you may end up doing or saying something you’ll live to regret
Try to be clear in your own mind about when to call a halt to the proceedings and politely take your leave. You won’t offend any real friends among your colleagues, and you can always meet up later and let your hair down properly.