To my knowledge, I have burned four bridges in my career. It's possible that I have unknowingly and unwittingly burned more and that other people have burned bridges with me (with or without my knowledge). But, there have only been four times in two decades (one every five years or so) that I have deliberately and willingly decided to end a business relationship in a way that clearly demonstrates there is no possibility of ever working with that person again.
Burning a bridge is a bold career move that is sometimes necessary and often misguided but it always feels great, if only fleetingly. Many dysfunctional business relationships can come to a natural end without the need to torch anything. People are fired and laid off everyday without the need for drama and business partners, clients and consultants often realize that they are not a good match and go their separate ways with a handshake and an assurance that they will be civil if they bump into each other on the street.
Burning a bridge usually means you leave a business relationship by telling your boss/colleagues/partner/client exactly what you think of them and their methods in no uncertain terms. You might even channel your inner Scarlett O'Hara and declare that "as God is your witness, you will never cross paths with them again". Highly unlikely if you work in the same industry but full of impact nonetheless. Others burn bridges in more passive ways, simply disappearing, not showing up for work, refusing to answer phone calls, etc. In this case, their silence speaks volumes.
It's hard to have a successful career without lighting a few flames but you should do so judiciously and ask yourself the following questions before you pour the gasoline:
1. Was this person's behaviour truly abusive, egregious or unethical?
There's a big difference between someone who is incompetent or a bad fit and someone who is abusive. We have all had our share of crappy bosses and catty coworkers but unless their behaviour can truly be described as abusive, just move on and chalk it up to a learning experience.
2. Do I plan to continue working in this industry?
If the answer is yes, then think twice. It's a small world and you'll likely encounter the person again. I once purposely burned a bridge with someone I considered unethical and years later, he showed up as a valued partner in a piece of business I wanted to win. When I found out he was involved, I backed out, but it was lost revenue nonetheless.
3. Is my reputation strong enough to withstand this?
Have you spent years helping others, building your reputation, growing your network and collecting a portfolio of good work? If so, you can probably survive any mudslinging that arises as a result of this situation but if you're just starting out or your reputation is already on shaky ground, walk away quietly and regroup.
4. Do I need this person for a reference?
No matter how much you may dislike someone, unless you already have three solid references to present at future job interviews, don't burn the bridge. I've been shocked to see some people dramatically burn a bridge in writing at their very first real job and then actually ask that person for a reference later.
5. Can I burn a bridge in a dignified manner?
Don't just explode in a hail of profanity. That's all that will be remembered. If you're going to have this conversation with someone, do it with as much class as you can muster. Plan your departure in advance and choose your words carefully. Leave out personal insults and petty grievances. They'll only weaken your case.
6. Is it really necessary to put it in writing?
So you've decided to burn a bridge. Why create an everlasting archive by putting it in an email or letter? Simply meet with the person in question and explain why you will no longer do business with them. I know some disgruntled employees have received front-page coverage with spectacular public resignation letters but that just paints you as an attention-seeking troublemaker, not an ideal future employee.
7. Did I play a role in the breakdown of this relationship?
Is this a case where you did your very best, worked hard, followed through and acted professionally but were still treated poorly? If so, get out the propane torch. But think seriously about your role, if any, in how things went awry. Unless you come out squeaky clean, it might not be worth it to play the blame game.
8. Do you have the stomach to handle the potential outcomes?
You just want to say your piece and move on to greener pastures but the object of your wrath might not cooperate. They might fight back, take it public or launch a smear campaign against you. Are you okay with that? If not, you may not have the stomach to handle burning bridges. Better to take the high road and focus on more positive things.
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