People change employment and/or lose employment every day. Most people know the basics:
1) Try to give two weeks notice
2) Try not to burn any bridges on the way out
3) Take all your stuff on the last day
4) Leave all their stuff (badges, etc.)
Let's go over what I actually mean by those basics.
1) Try to give two weeks notice. There are always going to be times when you cannot give two weeks of notice; you have a vacation planned or the new job is "get in here ASAP or don't get in at all" are reasons that commonly come up.
However, no matter how upset you are with the company you are leaving or excited to be going to the new job to which you are going, you usually give two weeks of notice to prove that a) you honor your commitments and b) give the company you are leaving time enough to sort out what happens because you are leaving.
Honoring your commitments is important to note, not just to maintain good relations with the job you are leaving (and subsequent references), but for the job to which you are going--sure, they want you as soon as they can get you oftentimes, but some part of them will keep track of what you're willing to do to your current employer in order to get into your next employer's good graces and will, eventually, do the math that they could end up as the current employer being screwed at some point in the future. That's not a good thought with which to start a new working relationship.
You may believe, by the way, that you will never do this again--the company you're leaving is toxic and horrible and deserves a short amount of time before you get out while the new company is noble and awesome. However, the old company started with some kind of awesome before, or you wouldn't have worked there at all. So no matter how toxic it feels, stick it out for suggested two weeks. You have, after all, only known the new company for five hours of interview time (or less) plus some email and random web searches; how much do you really know about how awesome they really are, other than they are not the current toxic place? They might not be worth shortening that expected time frame and causing friction with a potential employment reference in the future.
2) Try not to burn any bridges on the way out is one of the hardest things to do for some folks; its not that they are bad people, its just that the situation has become so problematic and been left for so long that its hard to stay amicable during the last days of employment.
You'll be tempted to tell your boss what you really think about (insert the blank). Or worse, send an email or a memo about things. It's common sense, but let me state for the record here: don't.
Almost all future employment forms ask for your boss's name. In most states, legally, your boss cannot say anything negative about you in those phone calls with a company calling to verify your employment--if the company verifying your employment (or anyone else) responded with negative things that were said about you to you, you could sue your boss and the company for defamation and/or slander. Since no one wants to be sued, typically the whole employment checking/reference checking thing is done very carefully. However, you aren't on that phone call and neither is your lawyer. The standard question most commonly asked when checking in with this type of reference (to avoid legal issues) is "Would you hire this person again?" and if your boss says "No," even if he cannot legally explain it and therefore, does not explain it, he has just kabashed your future prospects. In other instances, he or she could use tone of voice to convey their true thoughts about you telling them how much you hate that purple tie they wear every Thursday.
So, try not to piss off your boss any more than you already have by finding another job.
Next, DON'T PUT ANYTHING IN WRITING. Let's say that again: don't put any of your displeasure, unhappiness, feelings about work or whatever, in writing. Writing lives forever in an HR file. Companies can quote it when they're providing a reference, because its words you said, yourself--no risk of slander or defamation. Rant to your friends, write letters at home you tear up, but resist the urge to write things down that are wrong about the current environment and send them to your boss, HR, or any directly responsible parties.
But what, you may ask, about your exit interview? First of all, not all companies provide exit interviews, or, they are handled by your current, direct boss. In the case where something is so bad its possibly illegal or may cause other employees to quit the company, you may wish to request an exit interview with a person in Human Resources so you can communicate what's going on. But you rarely want to tell your boss directly unless you have an iron clad, tight relationship with him or her, and even then its best to wait and talk to HR.
Provided you have an exit interview, spend some time BEFORE the interview figuring out what you are going to say. To avoid burning bridges, you will remove all emotional language and treat it as just the facts: for example, "Kevin, my boss, is a super human being but cannot make his own meetings on time, usually on the scale of 1.5-2 full hours late, during which time the team is unproductive while we wait for him, because not waiting for him causes him to get upset with us and reflects on our regular reviews" rather than "Kevin, my boss, is always late. ALWAYS. He treats us like our time means nothing to him and we're here to just wait around for him. Once he rolls in, two hours late, and we're not there because we're actually getting work done, he threatens to write us up in our reviews for not making his meetings."
While I kissed up a bit in the first example--calling Kevin a "super human being"--I otherwise stated the facts of the case. In the second example, I complain about what Kevin has been doing as I try to explain what he's been doing; that erodes my credibility over the actual facts and paints me as a complainer/whiner rather than Kevin as a bad boss. Negative emotion injected into an exit interview recitation of issues and events affect your credibility and not the credibility of the person who you are responding to negatively. So keep it neutral, polite, to the point, just the facts, and be able to provide examples.
Prior to the exit interview, there's that two week window you have to work while everyone knows that you are leaving. I think of it as "Dead Man/Woman Walking" time. Basically, people avert their gaze, stop talking when you walk up, and/our plaster fake smiles on their faces while they ask pleasant, but expected questions about your next opportunity. It can get a little tiring, and as tempted as you might be to write out all the answers to the questions you keep getting asked and then hand the card to the next lucky questioner, control yourself. Be nice to everyone. Smile, even if they avert their eyes. Any one of these people could go to work at another place and pass on your resume if they think you're a decent person, should you ever need that sort of help in the future. Any one of these people could field the reference call about your work experience here. Best to keep it light, sociable, slightly regretful, but most of all, professional.
Finally, there's battling the clock. First, a lack of interest can be the problem: sometimes called "Short timer's Syndrome," there's this lack of urgency about things because in X number of days you'll never have to worry about that problem again. It might make you fail to deliver on your final deliverables, or otherwise be construed as a person not taking the job seriously. This is not the performance you want people at the job remembering about you (because, remember, you won't be here next week to remind them you're cool and get stuff done).
Second, there's an over interest in trying to get everything finished before you're gone and you cannot get it done anymore. This slavish loyalty to completing a project, helping your friends at this job, or just being loyal to the company can lead to you taking on too much work and not being able to complete it, causing people to remember poor performance on your part as you leave.
The trick is to walk the line closer to "less work" but still in the "getting work done" realm. Promise completion of projects that you know you can complete in less time than what is left, and then get any additional items you can get done, done, in the time after. So, for example, if I know that finishing the documentation on how to do all the items I know how to do will take a week, tops, I'll probably tell them it will take two weeks; when I finish, I'll take on additional small assignments until I go so that they feel like I really worked hard for them at the end--look at all the stuff she got done right before the end...rather than setting impossible expectations and having them be disappointed with your performance.
3) Take all your stuff on/by the last day. I should add, "and tidy your work area." No one wants to empty your filing cabinet of all the soy sauce packets you've collected in the last three years because you (rightly) realized you didn't need to take them with you. Plan out your move if you have a lot of stuff in your cube/office/on your desk, and make sure that the last load is gone on the last day. Don't try to arrange to come back later for more of it--it's just awkward and leaves things with the company and/or your manager feeling awkward; again, not the last emotion that you want to leave with them about how they feel about you prior to picking up the phone and responding to another company checking a reference.
4) Leave all their stuff (badges, etc.). Talk to your boss shortly after you announce leaving and set up a process by which to get work stuff into work. For example, the last day/time you will check in code to the repository, where you will drop off your badge, where you turn in your keys, etc. It's small stuff, but it leads to a lot of security issues if its not worked out, which may leave you liable for any security violations that happen after you leave (especially if you didn't do them, but your stuff--such as your badge--was used). Don't want to be sued for stealing company secrets your racing to get away from, so set this stuff up soon and follow the plan with your boss.
The four things seem pretty basic, but most people don't have a complete understanding of all the things going on under the hood. I'm not entirely sure I know everything about it--enough to be dangerous and share with you, I suppose.
Look out for the next article in this series, Part 2: You don't Initiate Leaving, But You're Leaving Anyway.