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If You Absolutely Must Leave a Contract -- Here's How

As a professional contractor, it’s good practice to complete a contract and avoid leaving your client high and dry. If you do find yourself in this situation, it’s Important to remember that what you do and, just as importantly, how you do it, builds your reputation for good or for ill.

First and foremost, carefully consider the reasons for leaving a contract.  Finding another opportunity for a few dollars an hour more and leaving before the contract is complete may have negative consequences down the road.  Again, what you do impacts your market reputation.   The contractor market is really very small and a bad rep can seriously impair future opportunities.  It is also important to remember if you are an incorporated contractor, your relationship is a business-to-business relationship with your client/agency and your company is contractually obligated to fulfill the terms of the contract. If you are terminating a contract early, there may be legal implications to your doing so.

Even for the most ethical and reliable contractors, though, leaving a contract is sometimes unavoidable and it may be for any number of reasons — fit, insurmountable challenges, personal emergencies, etc.  The key points to remember are Professionalism and Transparency, and these go hand-in-hand. Here are a few tips that will help you maintain your integrity and work toward building a positive reputation, while enhancing other's perception of you as a professional:

    • Let your employer/agency know early.  Especially if there are fit or challenge issues, there may be accommodations that can be made that would turn things around for you on this assignment.

    • Consider giving more notice than is contractually required if:

      • You have been on contract for a substantial length of time

      • Your project is in a sensitive phase

      • The company that you are working for has lost other key people in your area/project

      • There will be a fair bit of knowledge transfer needed to ensure continuity

    • Notice should be face-to-face whenever possible, phone if absolutely necessary, but never email or text.

    • Communicate often throughout the process, asking for feedback and pro-actively managing the responsibilities hand-off.  Getting all your documentation completed and well organized will ensure an easier transition to someone else.

    • If you have to terminate a contract because of an emergency or for health reasons, you may not be able to provide additional notice.  If it is truly something of this nature, people will understand and empathize with you.  Still, you must:

      • Communicate quickly with your client/agency

      • Explain the situation in as much detail as you are comfortable with. This is important as the reason will be key for your client/agency to understand why a short/abrupt contract termination is necessary.

      • Be pro-active, making suggestions of what you can do... or your client will need to do... to cover off your role once you leave

      • Apologize.  Even if it is something that is completely out of your control and people will (or should) understand, you must realize that this is causing some level of hardship for your client and it will be, at best, an inconvenience for them.

      • Work with your agency partner to identify potential people who might be candidates to backfill your position.  The agency will do all the leg work to ensure your recommendations are contacted, informed, vetted and are interested – leave this leg work to your agency and spend your time helping with the transition or on your personal matters if they are critical.

      • If possible, make yourself available after your final work date.  That way you can assist should there be any follow up questions that come to light after you leave.  Rarely is this leveraged, but it does demonstrate your concern and commitment for the client and/or their project.

Having to end a contract early is not ideal.  But if you have been contracting long enough, there will likely be a time when you will have to do so.  By following the advice above, you will increase your chances of doing so professionally and maintaining your good reputation.