Would you rather quit, or be forced to “pursue other opportunities?”

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When companies need to quietly get rid of executives, they often get creative in how they go about it in order to save face. Whether it’s early retirement, or announcing someone has “left to pursue other opportunities,” framing an exit is incredibly important as it impacts the firm, its employees and its brand -- not to mention the executive leaving his or her post.

So when Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations unexpectedly resigned earlier this week in a move that shocked many beyond the diplomatic circles of Washington and New York, many were wondering: was she pushed out, or did she make this decision all on her own?

While there is plenty of speculation about why she abruptly jumped ship, the way the former South Carolina governor handled the situation is something we can learn from when faced with either a self-imposed exit, or one that is ultimately imposed on us.

For starters, Haley announced she would remain in her post until the end of the year. Any time an executive resigns “effective immediately” it’s sure to arouse suspicion and spark rumours. By providing lots of runway until she officially vacates her position, the situation looks like it was coordinated by both the employer and executive. A smooth transition of this sort, viewed through a communications lens, can be a win-win. The long list of senior officials that have left the West Wing in less than ideal circumstances is proof that President Trump has no problem letting the door hit them on the way out. Not so with Ambassador Haley.

What makes her departure different than others (and yes, there have been many resignations), is she leaves with her reputation intact, despite working for one of the most polarizing presidents in American history. This is partly due to Haley not always toeing the party line. For example, she once shot back at Trump who accused her of being ‘confused’ over new Russian sanctions. She’s also defended women accusing the president of sexual assault, saying they deserved to be heard.

While this is purely speculation, the timing of her exit could be strategic. With the newscycle gripped by the now-confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh hearings, there’s been significant backlash to how both political parties handled the confirmation process, especially pertaining to the #MeToo movement that was very much front and centre. Even though Haley stresses she’s leaving because she needs a break, as one of the few senior women in the administration, some could interpret her departure as being influenced by these recent, turbulent events.

As we discussed a few weeks back, employees sometimes work for a boss or organization with such a toxic reputation that it can begin to impact their own. Although Haley is adamant she has no plans to run in 2020, some have speculated that if she stayed on longer, she’d be forced to follow policy directives she’s not comfortable with, which could negatively impact her image if she were to run again.

Our best guess would be that Haley’s departure was a decision she brought forward. In doing so, she has had much more control in shaping the narrative surrounding her exit. While this is much more important for executives in high-profile positions, it also serves as a lesson for junior and mid-level employees who want to ensure they are seen favourably by future employers. Just as is the case with making a great first impression, you only get one chance to depart well - don’t waste it!