The son of a good friend of mine was working his first job, for a bank. He had problems with his new boss and finally decided to leave. He apparently did so in a rather ungracious manner with a few choice remarks to his boss.
Five years later, his former bank bought the bank where he then worked. His boss still worked there. Guess who was the first to lose his job?
We all remember the story of Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who dramatically burnt his bridge. He lost his patience one day, cursed out the passenger who bonked him on the head with a suitcase over the plane’s PA system, grabbed two beers and escaped down the inflatable slide he had released. Those were the last two beers he ever enjoyed as a flight attendant.
The saying, “Don’t burn your bridges behind you” is believed to be from the military originally. When heading into battle, an army needs to leave a way to retreat if necessary.
In the business world, it means leave every situation in good standing. This is good advice not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also for pragmatic reasons, you never know when that burnt bridge can get you in trouble. As the poet, Dylan Thomas wrote, “When one burns one’s bridges, what a nice fire it makes.”
I know how tempting it can be. You’ve been miserable in a job for years, overworked, underpaid and unappreciated by a horrible boss. You finally land a new job and boy, wouldn’t it feel fantastic to tell your soon-to-be-former-boss exactly what you think of him?
Yes, it would feel fantastic. For a few minutes. Then you are left with possible repercussions you can’t even foresee that could happen months or even years down the road, like my son’s friend.
One mistake I’ve seen young people in particular make is believing that if they live in a large city they can get away with burning a few bridges along the way. In a city of several million, no one will know, right?
Wrong. Although a city may be huge, the people involved in a particular industry run in a much smaller circle. You never know who knows whom and when your name might come up.
On the plus side, if you do maintain a good reputation and leave previous jobs on good terms, that could also benefit you in ways you don’t anticipate. When many business owners are looking to fill jobs in their companies they often ask their peers if they know of anyone looking for work.
As I taught my children and tell young people I work with, the business world runs on relationships — they are the fuel that feeds your business. If possible, maintain good relationships with everyone you work with.
As one anonymous person said, “Burning bridges only makes it harder to get around and cover more ground.”