How to resign gracefully

What to do if, like Amber Rudd, you have no choice but to step down 

Amber Rudd resignation

When heads must roll – in business or politics – there are ways to resign gracefully, learn from the experience and move on, according to London Business School faculty. Scandals that can affect an organisation’s reputation often precipitate sudden demises. But some ways to resign are better than others.

When Amber Rudd stepped down from her role as UK Home Secretary over her handling of the country’s immigration policy, she admitted she had “inadvertently misled” MPs on deportation targets and that her office had been informed that they existed. A memo leaked by the Guardian newspaper set out what appeared to be national targets. 

“I should have been aware of this and I take full responsibility for the fact I was not,” she wrote in her resignation letter. 

Madan Pillutla, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School (LBS), said that when a person takes up public office they make a promise to live up to that office’s responsibilities: “Any failing, whether it is on account of incompetence or a lack of integrity is ultimately the responsibility of the leader. When the failing is very large, the leader should resign and should do so by acknowledging responsibility.

“You can’t both position yourself as a person of principle and shy away from responsibility when resigning for wrongdoing that has happened on your watch,” he continued. “Your best bet is therefore to take full responsibility.”

Michael Parke, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at LBS, stressed the importance of saying sorry – and meaning it. “If the resignation occurs in the face of a wrongdoing (or a wrongdoing occurred under the person's leadership), it is important for leaders to express a sincere apology,” he said.
“People inside and outside the organisation will have expectations that the leader displays true feelings of being upset about the misstep and that she or he takes responsibility for what has occurred. Research shows that leaders who appear authentic during apologies for organisational wrongdoings (as opposed to seeming fake or insincere) are more effective in reconciling and repairing relationships and their reputation.”

A recent example of this was Steve Smith, former cricket captain of Australia, who apologised after the scandal in which he was embroiled became public knowledge, said Dr Parke. 

Disgraced cricketer Steve Smith shows CEOs how to say sorry.

Dr Parke advised anyone facing public criticism: “If you or your unit messed up, apologise, own it, learn from it, and begin the healing process so people can start to rebuild their trust in you.”

Randall S Peterson, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Academic Director of LBS's Leadership Institute, highlighted that how a person resigns has implications for their future.  

“An obviously angry resignation will undermine your future employment prospects,” he said. “Too many resignations are done in spite and anger and it ultimately hurts the person resigning rather than the employer. Don’t be angry, punitive or sarcastic. Almost any future employer will want to know how you left your previous position and you want them to say you left with dignity and in a professional manner. 
This applies even if the person resigning has been treated badly within the organisation, Professor Peterson said. “Sometimes people resign and deserve to be angry, but ‘making your point’ as you resign will not get a bad employer to hear you. If they want to know why you are leaving, calmly explain why and your chances of making an impact increase. 

“This is why more companies are employing Glassdoor and other such providers: lots of good reasons people leave do not get heard because, for example, the bad boss who made your life miserable will cover it up when you leave gracefully. Glassdoor and similar services circumvent that problem.”

Sajid Javid, former housing secretary, has been appointed to fill the role of UK Home Secretary.