by Valerie Arendt, MSW, MPP
Leaving your social work job can be a difficult decision. Figuring out if and when you should leave will have an impact on your career and your family. There are many reasons to leave a job:
- Another exciting opportunity has come along.
- You’re stressed out.
- The agency has poor leadership.
- Your employer won’t let you attend professional development. Ever.
- They don’t encourage your career growth, or there are no advancement opportunities.
- It’s not a right fit.
- It’s just time to move on.
- All of the above.
These reasons aren’t unique in the social work profession, but there are some additional ethical considerations social workers need to think about before leaving their current positions. For whatever reason, you are ready to make a move. Here are a few steps to help you through the process of quitting your job with poise and without burning those essential professional bridges.
What To Do Before You Quit
1. Update your résumé and tap into your network. You should be doing this on an ongoing basis anyway, not just when you are ready to quit. Ideally, you will already have a job lined up before you quit, but sometimes employees need to exit quickly. Keeping up with your professional network and knowing what opportunities might be available for you are good life-long career strategies (see tool #3 of 9 Tools for Your Professional Social Worker Toolkit in the Fall 2015 issue of The New Social Worker).
2. Be discreet about your job search. Don’t search for or apply for jobs while you are at work. This may get you fired. Do your online job search at home, but definitely use your professional work contacts to find out which organizations may be hiring.
3. Start collecting your things. When you give notice of your departure you may be asked to leave immediately for security purposes. Many social workers don’t expect this, but it does happen. If you have more than a boxful of personal items at your desk, quietly start taking things home, so there isn’t a big scene if you are asked to leave on the day you resign.
4. Write a letter of resignation. Give your employer documentation of your resignation. Keep it simple and positive, as this will likely go in the organization’s file on you. Even if they treated you poorly, they did hire and employ you. Thank them for the job, and give them the date of your last day of employment.
5. Give appropriate notice. Check your organization’s policies on the amount of notice that is required. Two weeks is standard for entry-level positions, but if you are in a supervisory role or manage programs, a month is a decent amount of time for your employer to put a plan in place until your replacement is hired.
6. Resign in person. Schedule an in-person meeting with your supervisor to give notice that you are leaving. Be prepared to be asked why you are quitting, but don’t feel obligated to tell them everything if you are truly dissatisfied with your job or employer. You don’t want to risk an emotional outburst from either side. Practice what you are going to say and restate what you have written in your resignation letter.
After You Resign
7. Offer to assist with the transition. Attempt to keep up a good relationship with your employer by writing detailed instructions for your replacement. Are you the only person who knows certain usernames and passwords or knows all the minute details of your job? Making the transition a little smoother for both your employer and the person replacing you will help you leave a positive impression. Offer to help train your replacement, and come up with a consulting fee if your employer is thankful for the assistance. When I left a manager position a number of years ago, my former employer was more than happy to pay me to help make the transition easier. I even gave enough notice to be able to help hire my replacement.
8. Give your colleagues a heads up. You may need to check with your supervisor regarding how to inform your co-workers you are leaving. Your co-workers do deserve to know. Social workers also work with many colleagues outside their organizations. Nothing is worse than sending an email to a colleague and getting an auto-reply stating that the person left a month ago. It is a professional courtesy to let your network know you are moving on, thanking them for working with you, and informing them what the plan is for the transition, if there is one.
9. Continue to do your job and wrap things up before you go. It is easy to just stop working after you have resigned and count down the days before you leave. Don’t leave your employer to clean up your messy files and unanswered emails. I have entered more than one position where I have had to do some major clean-up from the person who had the job before me. Exit on a strong note, and you will be confident in asking for positive references from your former co-workers in the future.
Ethical Implications of Leaving a Social Work Job
10. Understand your ethical obligations to your clients. According to the NASW Code of Ethics, Standard 1.16 Termination of Services:
(e) Social workers who anticipate the termination or interruption of services to clients should notify clients promptly and seek the transfer, referral, or continuation of services in relation to the clients’ needs and preferences. And (f) Social workers who are leaving an employment setting should inform clients of appropriate options for the continuation of services and of the benefits and risks of the options.
As a social worker, regardless of your licensure status, you are ethically obligated to inform your clients you are leaving and how they can continue their services. You should work with your employer on how this will happen. Check out the NASW Legal Issue of the Month: Termination: Ending the Therapeutic Relationship—Avoiding Abandonment (NASW, 2015, http://www.socialworkers.org/ldf/legal_issue/2015/termination-ending_the_therapeutic_relationship-avoiding_abandonment.asp) for tips on termination with clients and what to include in your termination letter.
What happens if you are asked to leave immediately and don’t have the chance to inform your clients? In your resignation letter, include your plans to inform your clients that you are leaving and that you are obligated by your NASW Code of Ethics to do so. If your employer still requires you to leave without notifying your clients, document that you were asked to leave and were not given the chance to inform your clients. Do not try to contact your clients after your employment has ended.
11. Can you take your clients with you? Can social workers continue providing services to their clients at their new agency or private practice? What if clients ask whether they can continue working with the departing social worker? Be very aware if you have signed a contract with your agency regarding “ownership of clients” or a “non-compete clause” in case of your departure. “Non-compete” clauses prohibit social workers from seeing agency clients in the social worker’s private practice or other professional office setting both during the period of the contract or employment relationship and afterwards.
The NASW Code of Ethics, Standard 3.09(a) states, “Social workers generally should adhere to commitments made to employers and employing organizations.” This may raise an ethical dilemma for the social worker who seeks to continue treating a client upon leaving one practice for another, but who is bound by the terms of a contractual non-compete clause. Read more in the NASW Legal Issue of the Month: Social Work Ethics and Non-Compete Clauses in Employment Contracts and Independent Contractor Agreements (NASW, 2012, http://www.socialworkers.org/ldf/legal_issue/2012/Sep2012.asp).
Social work is a small world, and you will most likely run into the same people at some point in your career. Leave a positive lasting impression before, during, and after you leave your position.
Valerie Arendt, MSW, MPP, is the Associate Executive Director for the National Association of Social Workers, North Carolina Chapter (NASW-NC). She received her dual degree in social work and public policy from the University of Minnesota and currently provides membership support, including résumé review, to the members of NASW-NC.