by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter
Ten years ago, the three-person team responsible for editing an association newsletter quit for reasons never explained, with no notice, and without providing any material for a successor — no formatting or style information, no backlog of unused material, no contact information for vendors or past contributors; nada. The organization’s board of directors was gobsmacked, to quote our British colleagues.
That was a textbook example of how not to step away from a project, client, or job. No matter how badly you’re treated or how much you hate the project (and it was never clear that there was a reason for that team’s move), it’s always smart to take the high road on leaving. That even goes for being laid off or fired. You never know when such behavior will come up in a future workplace, freelance, or volunteer setting. You don’t want to be known as the unprofessional, even childish, person who took her toys and went home in a huff, leaving everyone at a loss in her wake. You want to be remembered as someone who behaved in a professional manner that made the transition smooth for your successor.
I stepped up to take on editing that publication and kept it rolling for more than 10 years. When I was ready to let it go and give someone new a chance at the editor’s role, I was reminded of how I came into the project. I also remembered starting a couple of new in-house jobs and feeling somewhat at sea because a predecessor didn’t provide much of a roadmap for what to do and how. I was determined to handle this transition very differently from my predecessors. I felt that I owed that to myself as a professional, but also to the organization and to whoever was next to serve as editor — perhaps most to my successor.
Here are a few of my tips on how to hand off a project gracefully and professionally.
- Give decent notice. That seems obvious, but it can be tempting to throw a hissy fit and just walk off the job if it has become onerous or unpleasant. Professionals, though, don’t do that unless there’s genuine provocation, and sometimes not even then. Publications and projects don’t run themselves, and it can take time to find a replacement. The standard is usually two weeks, but it might be smart to give a month’s notice, especially if the publication or project you handle is on a monthly publishing schedule. Take the high road, be the better person, and give the employer, sponsoring organization, or client a chance to find a replacement before you leave.
- Put it in writing. Create or update a job description that details what your replacement will be expected to do, when, how, and with whom. There might have been one when you started the job or assignment, but you may have put your own stamp on the role or taken on additional responsibilities, so add those details to the original description. In many instances, especially for freelance projects, there is no job description. Providing one will make it easier for the client or employer to find an appropriate replacement and for your successor to handle the work.
- Help a replacement out. Some may say that this is more appropriate for a volunteer project than a paid one, but I think it’s a good idea to provide as much information as possible about the publication or project, from the preferred or house style manual to the look of the book, whether you’re an in-house employee, a freelancer, or a volunteer. I know I appreciate that kind of information when I begin a new project. Prepare a list of relevant details: publishing schedule and deadlines; programs or applications used; formatting — typefaces and sizes; columns numbers and widths; character styles (headlines and subheads, body text, captions, indents, bullets, etc.); vendor roles, names, and contact information; contributors for writing, artwork, and any other roles; budget details if that is part of your responsibility. Have at least a couple of unused articles in place to hand over so the new person doesn’t have to start with a totally empty quiver of material. A new person might want to do a wholesale redesign of that newsletter or magazine that you’ve loved editing, and may want to use all new contributors and freelancers, but probably will need to know how to put together at least one first issue based on the current version. (This might seem like a lot to do to help out a replacement, but it can also be seen as an organizing function for oneself.)
- Offer insights. Don’t be a gossip and don’t badmouth colleagues, but — if appropriate — let your replacement know something about the hierarchy of the organization; most importantly, any chain of approvals and command to follow, along with who is likely to be the most helpful to a newcomer. If a client or supervisor has certain unpredictable quirks, consider sharing that information informally. For instance, new editor or freelancer might think that “due on Monday” means they have until 5 p.m. to finish an assignment or prepare material for collegial review, but the client or supervisor might be expecting it at 9 a.m. that day.
- Suggest a successor. If you know someone in or outside the organization who would be your ideal replacement, recommend that person. You’ll do a favor to both the organization and the individual, and they’ll remember it. This is especially important if you’re a freelancer and decide to leave a project for some reason. Good freelancers can be harder to find than good employees.
- Be available. Let your contact, supervisor, or colleague know how to reach you in the case there are questions that only you can answer. You won’t want to be taken advantage of once you’re out the door by spending a lot of time on helping out the organization or your replacement, but you do want — again — to leave with the image of someone who is professional, responsible, and helpful. Within reason, of course.
What else have you done, or wished someone had done for you, to make a professional exit from a project or position?
Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.