What No One Ever Tells You About Burning Bridges

A couple weeks back, I had gotten a message on Facebook from an old friend from college. He had gotten into a typical predicament regarding job offers: He had accepted a job offer with a large accounting company and recently got in touch with an opportunity in the education industry on the West Coast that he had wanted for months. I asked him what stopped him from moving to this new opportunity and he responded with this:

“I don’t want to burn a bridge.”

“My career counselor told me it wasn’t a good idea. I may get blacklisted. I don’t want to have a broken relationship with recruiters if I apply for a job there in the future. ”

I felt uncomfortable giving him direct advice but I told him it was better to explain his reasoning to the first recruiter than beat around the bush. After some more reflection, he chose the new opportunity. The recruiter congratulated him and it was over after that.

Sound simple? Unfortunately, few people will pull the trigger in the same situation. I don’t blame them. We are constantly encouraged by career centers to make sure we keep our relationships intact with employers. We’re pressed on the value of maintaining strong relationships in business. We are routinely introduced to that word “integrity” and how much it matters. We live in the fear of blackballing, revoked offers, and patterns of negative perception. I found an answer to a similar question on Quora related to this. As expected the answer was: “Show your integrity and stick with the first opportunity.  Your reputation and career are at stake.”

The impending need or desire to break a commitment is awful. You can’t predict reactions or escape the fact that your integrity thrives in a small world. Our pride and ego naturally encourage us to pursue the more appropriate decision. There are no classes on effectively burning bridges or dealing with dissonance. It’s a visibly uncomfortable topic. It’s inevitable. Is there a right or wrong way to do this?

Silence is Not Golden: Be upfront, honest, and humble. If you have to break a commitment for any reason, don’t play games or let the other side find out from someone else. I laud Lebron James for his famous “Decision” segment on ESPN because he provided some great fodder for ‘What Not Do in PR 101′. Without any warning, he destroyed his relationship with the fans and owners of the Cleveland Cavaliers in a single day due to his unwillingness to have a private and genial conversation regarding his desire to leave the team. Would his old team have been happy either way? Probably not. Any decision driven by self-interest and not communal benefit may not make others happy. At the end of the day, being open about it is more of a testament to good character than being aloof.

Evaluate Your Relationships: Are you holding onto a relationship that isn’t there? Think back to the first example with the company that my friend had yet to even work for. In the short amount of time they had known each other, I doubt many interviewers could attest to his skill, work ethic, or personality. Would they have been annoyed at the extra paperwork? Of course. Would they have been credible sources for reference? No way to tell. If you have to leave a company or a job you just started, ask why you’re leaving. If it’s a situation with a terrible boss, ask yourself if it’s worth staying just to appease them. If you are leaving for a new industry or career path, assess if your relationships will be helpful. Most individuals change jobs six to eight times before the age of 30, often building out new networks along the way. Ask yourself if you can start building out a new network should there be no way to salvage your old one.

Learn To Say No: Here’s the best way to avoid breaking commitments you don’t want: learn to say no in the first place. My friend Tam Pham writes in his blog “Trust Your Gut, Not Your Ego” about the story of how he accepted an offer from another company that was offered on the spot only to leave soon after. His moment of epiphany came from author James Altucher who once said, “If it’s not a HELL YES, then it’s a no.” Before you take that first job offer, pursue a new project, or leave a current job, ask yourself if you’re doing it out of pride or out of necessity. It’s easier to say no before than after a contract is established and a relationship is in progress.

Build Your Marketability: Most college recruiters in the NCAA who pursue high school players will often choose to keep a strong relationship with players even if they reject or revoke a commitment to their school. Why? They are talent scouts and out to build teams based on objective ability. If the player is unhappy with his current team and looking to transfer after two years, coaches may jump on that opportunity. Many companies operate in the same fashion. If you have a special skill they want in a couple years or you become an exceptional candidate, most recruiters will offer to re-establish that trust. Remember that most candidates are not irreplaceable. Companies are in business to make money. Any other agenda they put forward is most likely secondary. Holding grudges takes extra effort, one that is often not conducive to the company at large.

You Can Wait or Start Over: Not every burned bridge is permanent. People forgive and forget. It happened to Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, Jay-Z and Nas, Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s true that time does heal wounds. People change over time and find new reasons to like you. If you wait or make an offer to reconnect after a reasonable amount of time, you might be pleasantly surprised. Another option? You can start over. Ask yourself what results in the worst case scenario if you happen to burn a bridge at any point. It happens to good people all the time. There is insight in failure and endless opportunities that come with a new path.

At the end of the day, I don’t endorse burning bridges in most circumstances. In my own career, I am proud to say I have kept strong relationships because of this and ashamed to admit that I have also let opportunities go. None of these reasons should give you excuse to do a mediocre job, be a generally apathetic or unkind person, or go out of your way to screw someone over. I do think that it’s a conversation we don’t often have in business and something we should start discussing before college students sail into the rough tides of the real world.