Is It Ever Okay to Burn Bridges in Business?
To ‘burn bridges’ is a colloquial expression that means to destroy one's path, connections, reputation, relationships or opportunities…. often unintentionally or carelessly. It can be personal or professional. Sometimes a bridge is burned due to an emotional response to an unexpected, negative situation. Sometimes, it is a byproduct of a contentious, unsolvable dispute. It is a behavior that might be generally thought of as imprudent, impulsive and unadvisable. Yet, people burns bridges all the time. In fact, people – across the spectrum from politics to business – seem much more willing to burn bridges. Relationships that were carefully nurtured for years are suddenly allowed to end…and end badly. Why?
To begin with, few people see themselves as ‘bridge burners’. Some might see bridge burning as the result of a bad situation that was impossible to avoid. Someone who recklessly ruins a relationship might view themselves as irreverent, brutally honest, tough, shrewd, blunt or temperamental. In fact, some might even see bridge-burning as necessary for success. And, it is true that some of the most successful business people in history were known for being blatant bridge burners. For example, Cornelius Vanderbilt, considered America’s first tycoon, was known for his contentious character and legendary feuds. While his genius and force of will did more than perhaps any other individual to create modern capitalism, he was highly combative and didn’t care what bridges he burned in his business dealings. The question then is whether burning bridges is sometimes unavoidable – or perhaps even necessary – to be successful in business? Are there instances in which burning a bridge is acceptable? Or should savvy professionals always seek to build and preserve bridges? When it comes to business, is it ever okay to burn bridges?
The Problem with Burning Bridges.
The traditional wisdom has always been not to burn bridges… if at all possible. For example, even if someone was fired from a job in the worst way, the general wisdom was for him to take care to not ‘burn bridges’ by making unseemly comments about the company, the boss or other colleagues on the way out the door. After all, one never knows who one will meet again in the future who witnessed the bridge-burning fiasco, or who those witnesses might tell. A bridge burner might end up working with someone at their next job who, it turns out, is related to or knows someone from his last place of employ. In olden days, most people lived in small towns. Folks were connected to others through friends, family and colleagues. Everyone knew everyone and people talked. Folks also stayed in jobs a long time and seldom relocated out of the area. Once a person gained a reputation for burning bridges, it would have stuck and possibly soured future opportunities.
Times have definitely changed since then. Most Americans today live in big cities and the average person today is likely to change jobs six to eight times before the age of 30. Moreover, 40 million Americans relocate annually, many of those moves being 50 to 100 miles away from their current home. One might think it highly unlikely for a person at one’s old job to be connected to someone at one’s next job. That is a false assumption for a few reasons.
As we said, times have indeed changed… in other ways too. Today, business connections are much easier to make and maintain across great distances (even globally) because of the Internet and social media sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. A notorious and serial bridge-burner might have a very hard time getting anyone to write a positive recommendation. Even if the bridge burner’s beef was with the boss, not the coworkers, those colleagues might hesitate to publicly praise a person that burned a bridge with the employer. Likewise, vendors who burn bridges with customers might get bad reviews on sites such as Yelp or Angie’s List.
Moreover, employers are taking much greater care in screening potential new employees. USA Today stated just this week that the average length of the job interview process in 2014 was 22.9 days, up sharply from 12.6 days in 2010. In part, the reason that the hiring process has gotten longer is that employers are taking more time to ‘check out’ new hires to ensure that they are hiring the best qualified and most desirable candidate available. Given the cost of recruiting, hiring and training new employees, HR departments know that a less-than-thoroughly-vetted new hire can end up being a costly nightmare for the company. So references are getting checked more regularly, and while companies are careful not to get sued for bad-mouthing a former employee, HR departments are also getting better at knowing what questions to ask to detect closet bridge burners. For example, HR departments are perfectly within their rights to ask (and employers can truthfully answer) “Would you hire so-and-so again if you had the chance?” If the answer is no, as it no doubt would be for someone who burned bridges on their way out the door, it is unlikely that a new employer would take a chance hiring that candidate.
What about business owners? Can a small or mid-sized business owner afford to burn a bridge or two… have an enemy or two? After all, competition is motivating. It could be argued that having competitors that remind you who you don’t want to be is a good thing. Some believe it is actually even good for a business owner to have a nemesis and an archenemy. One measures oneself against one’s nemeses, and one is driven to put an archenemy out of business. So a nemeses and an archenemy could potentially serve as helpful catalysts to do more, do better and succeed. Right? Wrong. In a world full of mergers and acquisitions, your competitor today might be your business partner tomorrow. For an entrepreneur who is visionary, open-minded and careful to preserve relationships, new opportunities can be found in the most unlikely of places. Many rival companies have merged. Alcatel and Lucent merged in 2006. Nokia and Siemens combined their telecom equipment units in 2007. Just this week, Anthem is acquiring healthcare rival Cigna. Today’s nemesis might be tomorrow’s colleague.
Moreover, any company that relies on independent sales representatives to work with its accounts must remember that those salespeople are always in touch with customers, probably more often and more directly than the company is. If that salesperson leaves, in all likelihood, he will be selling a competing product or service. So when a salesperson and company go their separate ways, ex-reps will likely be face-to-face with a company’s customers, but now possibly selling against. There's nothing that can be done about business competition, but being a class act in the split will at least reduce or eliminate the animosity that can lead to a nastier, vindictive kind of competition. And, who knows, salespeople have been known to leave a company for greener pastures and then return.
Of course, business situations are not always rainbows and butterflies. Sometimes there is no avoiding an unfortunate end to a relationship. The challenge is in finding a way to do it while preserving everyone’s dignity in the process. Burning the bridge might feel good in the moment, but it is unwise and in due course may be cause for regret. Whenever and however possible, it is in the interest of all parties involved to minimize bad blood and keep a philosophical, businesslike attitude because one never knows when the twists and turns of life might bring one back to that bridge.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
"The saddest thing about burning a bridge is realizing that you can never get back to the beautiful place it used to take you." Anonymous