How To Quit Your Job

Before you get any ideas, this isn’t about Amway; I’m not going to follow “how to quit your job” with an ellipsis and then a bunch of promises about how you can make a 7 figure income emailing pictures of cats to people. In fact, this post has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not you depend on having a job. I’m not offering advice on how not to need a job or how to “quit the game” or anything like that. I’m speaking quite literally about how to resign from your job when the time comes (usually when you’ve accepted an offer from another organization) and all of the considerations around that. I’ve received a surprising (to me anyway) number of requests for advice on this topic, so I thought I’d share my thoughts. As someone who has managed people and who has moved around some, I certainly have perspective on the matter that, perhaps, you will find worthwhile.

CatMeme

Before I get right down to it, I’d like to make a quick note about “rage-quitting.” Don’t rage quit; be a grownup. Okay, moving on.

Prelude to Quitting

Before you decide to quit a job (consciously, anyway) you generally dip your toe into the job market, sending off some resumes, doing some phone interviews, etc. This is the phase in which it feels like you’re doing something kind of wrong but exhilarating — cheating on your current employer (or at least flirting). You’ve grown tired of your situation and you’re starting to daydream about a new one where they don’t follow such a stupid development methodology, you won’t have to deal with Steve from two rows over anymore, and they even have ping pong tables. Ping pong — do you hear me?! So why does this make you feel a little guilty? Well, it should — the game is setup this way. You have to sneak around, claiming to be sick when you’re not and doing other quasi-unscrupulous things. It’s a bummer, but it’s the way the game is played, unfortunately. Perhaps a better system will come along and obviate this practice.

Until that happens, however, you have to make do. It might be tempting to tell your employer what you’re doing either for the sake of honesty or to make them sweat, but resist this impulse. You don’t want to tip your hand at all because it’s option-limiting for you. If you throw in their face that you’re out job-hunting, they may scramble to please/keep you in the short term, but they’ll certainly start forming contingency plans in the long term. And, it also makes you sound like a prima donna.

If you think that your employer can correct whatever is causing you to want to look elsewhere, state your case without threats. If you’re paid below market value, come in with data from salary.com, your last few performance reviews, and a level-headed pitch for more money. Same general idea if you think you should have more responsibility or a better title. Don’t bring threats into it — and make no mistake, that’s what telling them you’re going to look for other jobs is — instead, sell yourself. If it doesn’t work, thank them for their consideration, tell them they’ve actually convinced you that they have the right of it, and start lining up interviews. Hey, you gave them a chance.

When you’re lining up interviews, space them out and separate the wheat from the chaff. (This is mainly applicable to programmers, who will be inundated with interview requests in today’s economy.) It can be tempting, especially if you’re disgruntled, to book 12 interviews over a Monday-through-Friday span, but what plausible, non-suspicious reason do you have for a run of absence like that? Your supply of mornings to come in late, afternoons to sneak out early, and random “sick” days is going to be quite limited, particularly if you’ve just made a pitch for a better title and been refused. Use these wisely. Filter out all but the best opportunities. Don’t take ‘interviews’ with recruiters (they’ll cave — just tell ‘em you’ll call a different recruiter). Feel free to push back on things and let them go for a week or two. It’ll be okay.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and your current job is in hand, earning you money. Until you have an offer, it’s clearly your best prospect.

Dotting I’s and Crossing T’s

After a bit of sneaking around, your activities paid off. You managed to snag a good offer and you’re ready to march in and let everyone know that you’re moving on to bigger and better things. Settle down, because you have work to do first. First of all, you need to sign the offer and have it returned to you, counter-signed, before you have anything of substance (and theoretically, an employer can even go back on a signed offer letter — it’s not a contract, per se — even though it would be bad faith). Next, you need to see what the offer is contingent upon.

Are they going to call your references? Do a background check? Credit check? Drug test? Something you’ve never heard of before like an obstacle course or feats of strength? These things aren’t mere formalities — they’re grounds for rescinding the offer. Do not give notice at your current job until all of these things are taken care of. Never done any drugs in your life and nothing in your background to hide, you say? Great, but that doesn’t mean a false positive is impossible. It’d certainly be a bummer if your offer got yanked because some other Joe Smith made the local police blotter for stealing a car. It’s a situation that could likely be straightened out, but you’re in no-man’s-land until it is.

Make sure there are no possible obstacles before you take an irrevocable step with your current employer who is, still, even with contingent offer in hand, your best prospect.

Actual Resignation

Alright, so no one dropped a bunch of poppy seeds into your urine and no one sharing your name stole any cars recently, so everything went smoothly with the offer and contingencies. Now, you’re ready to make it official. But, what to do? Tell your manager in passing? A phone call? An email, since that’ll be an awkward conversation? How do you drop this bombshell? None of the above. You’re going to type up a letter of resignation, sign it, and bring it along with you to a one on one meeting that you’ll request with your direct supervisor (perhaps someone above that person in the chain in an odd situation such as your boss being on vacation for a week or something).

Yikes, so what to type in the letter? Not much. Make it very short, polite and unremarkable. Here’s more or less what I use:

Dear {Boss}:

Please accept this as my formal resignation from the position of {your official title} at {official company name}, with my last day being {date of last day}. I very much appreciate you giving me the opportunity to work for {informal/abbreviated company name}.

This decision was made very difficult by the fact that I have thoroughly enjoyed my time and experience here. Please let me know how I can be of assistance with any knowledge transfer or final work over the next {duration of notice period}.

Again, thank you very much for the opportunity to work for you.

Sincerely,

{your first and last name}

Put a header with your address on top of it on the right and the company’s address, C/O your boss on the left below it, leave 5 lines between Sincerely and your name, and sign it once you print it. This is not the venue for a soliloquy on how you’ve grown with the company, and it’s not the place to skewer people you hate. This is basically just going to go in a folder somewhere as proof for HR that you left voluntarily rather than them firing you. It’s not likely anyone will even read it.

With that in hand, schedule some time with your boss to talk and, when in there, get to the point. Say something like, “I just want to let you know that I’m going to be resigning, effective X date, and I’m happy to help with any knowledge transfer or whatever you need, and here’s a letter to that effect.” Don’t send an email or make a phone call or leave a note or something. Grab a few minutes of the manager’s time, look him or her in the eye, and offer your resignation.

Also, offer two to three weeks of notice. Two weeks is pretty standard, and most prospective new employers will understand up to three weeks of notice before you start (a little extra notice and maybe a long weekend for you to decompress or something). Giving less than two weeks is poor form (and no new boss should expect this of you). Giving more than three weeks seems like it’d be a really courteous thing to do, but in reality, it’s just kind of awkward. You take on a dead man/woman walking status once people know that you’re leaving and things get kind of weird. You really don’t want to drag this out for too long.

Keep it Classy

Once you’ve handed in your resignation, the reaction you face is likely to vary. If you’re close with your manager and have a good working relationship, they probably expect it. If not, you’re going to be catching the person off guard, so expect reactions that range from disappointment to dismay to anger to sadness. On occasion, you might even get happiness, if they don’t like you (or if they really like you and don’t like the company very much). Having been on the manager’s end of the table, I can tell you that you’re almost never expecting someone dropping by your office to say, “hey, I quit,” so expect a bit of unguarded emotion from the manager before they get their bearings.

All that said, it’s fairly unusual for a manager to have a real outburst of any kind. The most common reaction will be to ask you why you’re quitting (even if they already know), and at this point, it’s vital to stay classy. There’s nothing for you to gain by launching a volley of negativity at them — just say that you have an opportunity that you think is a better fit or a chance to advance your career or whatever. Be positive about your new gig — not negative about the current one.

On the rare occasion that you are subject to a hissy fit, take the high road. Deep breaths, calming thoughts, and level-headed coolness are your allies. If it gets too heated, you can always leave the room (I mean, what are they going to do to you?). Go in knowing that yours is a position of strength and don’t worry about things like, “what if they fire me on the spot?” Not to say that it would never happen, but a manager or higher-up berating or even firing a quitting employee is spectacularly stupid. If they’re doing that they might as well hang a sign in the building that says, “if you’re going to quit, you’re better off doing it without notice!” Managers and leaders need notice to arrange a replacement, line up knowledge transfer, craft a message about the departure, etc. Knowing all of that should help you stay calm in the face of whatever happens. But, nothing much will probably happen beyond the obligatory, “sure hate to see ya go, but good luck!”

AngryArch

The Counter-Offer

Assuming that your boss or someone higher in the food chain hasn’t acted like an idiot in reaction to your quitting, a common thing to which you’ll be exposed is the counter-offer. Michael Lopp calls this an attempt at a “diving save.” On Monday, you tell your boss that you quit, and later that afternoon or evening, boss has a meeting with the CTO, some other managers, and maybe even the CEO in which they discuss your offer of notice. Since programmers are so hard to hire and keep these days, it’s decided that they have to try to keep you. So, Tuesday morning when you come in, you have a meeting invite asking you to come to that conference room way across the building with the leather chairs and the little fridge with sodas in it, and there on the meeting roster are a bunch of people that have always been too important to be in meetings with the likes of you. Until today, that is.

In this room, they smile and offer you a soda, and they tell you how important you are to the company. They tell you that they have your best interests at heart, and they warn you that a lot of people who leave wind up being unhappy elsewhere. Then, they lay the good stuff on you. They’ll bump you from Software Engineer III to Software Engineer IV and bump your pay by 9, count-em 9 thousand dollars per year. You lick your lips and do a little quick math, realizing that’s $750 extra dollars per month and, even after tax, a pretty nice car payment for the new car you’ve been needing. Heck, it’s even more of a bump than the offer you got from the new company. Should you take it?

If you want to hear arguments as to why counter-offers are a bad idea, just ask any recruiter to whom you talk. Recruiters work by taking a percentage of your first year’s salary from the company that hires you, and they lose that cut if you sign and then decide to stay. Counter-offers are recruiters’ mortal enemy, so if you ask them about whether you should accept a counter offer, you will be treated to a polished, well-rehearsed, convincing argument that counter-offers are such a terrible idea that it’s not unheard of for them to lead to cancer. They’ll tell you about how the company is in a bind but once you agree they’ll start trying to replace you. They’ll tell you that bosses don’t like to have a gun placed to their head and will resent you. They’ll tell you about the dreaded HR matrix and how if you accept a counter offer you won’t get a promotion for 8 years.

But here’s something I’ve never heard them say, and the reason I tend to think that accepting counter offers is a bad idea. Returning to the relationship metaphor from earlier when I mentioned the idea of “sneaking around” on your employer, consider what a resignation is. You’ve had kind of a vacant stare for a while and a feeling that something just isn’t working. You go out, flirt a little with other companies and then decide, “you know what — it’s over — time for a change!” You muster up the courage to take that plunge and have that difficult conversation, and your partner is then hurt and perhaps a bit in denial. After sleeping on it, though, bargaining starts the next day. “Alright, I know you said that you aren’t happy, so here’s what I’m going to do: you get to pick the pizza topping every Saturday instead of us alternating, you never have to come to my parents’ house except on Christmas, and I’ll take over the dishes and the vacuuming.” You’ve initiated a breakup due to existential unhappiness and the other party responds with an appealing set of superficial improvements. So do you then say, “Gosh, I was pretty unhappy, but really, every Saturday night we can have mushrooms and pepperoni? Hello, relationship bliss!” If so, how long before the blank stare comes back?

In the article I linked, Lopp says the following of the diving save:

Diving Saves are usually a sign of poor leadership. People rarely just up and leave. There are a slew of obvious warning signs I’ve documented elsewhere, but the real first question you have to ask yourself once you get over the shock of an unexpected resignation is: “Did you really not see it coming? Really?”

The question then becomes whether you really want to work at a place that only addresses your discontentment at the absolute last conceivable moment. Do you want to work at a place that’s only interested in your happiness when faced with your eminent departure? There’s probably a reason that you want to go, and that reason is probably tied heavily into a corporate culture where you’ve felt that no one who mattered was interested in championing your cause. You’re going to get that $750 and buy a car, and then it won’t be an awesome sum of money but rather ho-hum, just what you make. Your life will be basically the same as it was before they shoveled that money your way in a desperate attempt to keep you. They’re not going to consider you almost leaving a wake-up call to stop taking you for granted; they’re going to consider you a problem solved via bribe.

The Awkward Two Weeks And Exit Interview

Let’s assume you’ve politely declined any counter-offers that are made and you’re just riding out your last two weeks. First of all, continue staying classy and maintain a positive attitude. This is not the time to tell off people that you don’t like or make a lot of snarky comments. Be polite and helpful with knowledge transfer activities and finishing up any last work. If you disagree with who is going to be replacing you on things, keep that to yourself. These shouldn’t be hard things to do and it shouldn’t be hard to stay optimistic — you’re going to be free soon and there’s a light shining very clearly at the end of the tunnel.

At some point, HR will want to bring you in for an exit interview in which they ask all sorts of candid questions about your time with the company. Let me be clear about this — there is zero upside for you when it comes to being honest about criticism of the company. The smartest course of action is for you to walk in there, smile, and tell them how wonderful the company is and that you really hate to leave but it’s just too good an opportunity to pass up. Why? Well, what’s going to happen is that your responses are going to be reviewed by various manager and VP types as matters of feedback for improving the company. So the very people that might later offer you references or even hire you back later (stranger things do happen) are going to be seeing your feedback. And, those people are humans who probably won’t enjoy reading about how they’re “completely clueless” or “incompetent” or whatever you might feel like saying.

I’m not telling you not to be honest. I’m just telling you that there’s no benefit to you in being honest beyond how momentarily cathartic it might be to tell someone what you’ve really thought this whole time. It might be that you have friends working there and someone giving feedback about how everyone hates some activity or has real problems with some person might help your friends that will continue to work there. Fine, great, go for it if you want. Just understand that there’s no upside for you and there’s definite potential for downside.

Last Day and Beyond

Your last day will probably be the weirdest. You should spend some time making the rounds, saying your goodbyes, exchanging contact info, and wishing people well. I would also recommend an offer, if appropriate and within the bounds of your new employment agreement, to consult here and there if your former group/boss needs it. Typically this sort of consultation is easy, extra money for you and ensures a good professional relationship on an ongoing basis. Even just the offer will probably be well received, even if politely declined.

Once you’ve left, keep contact with your friends if so desired, and perhaps go for a drink or meal now and then. But on top of that, I’d keep in touch with former managers or people in authority positions as well. At minimum, if they like you, they can be excellent references. But on top of that, they may leave and go elsewhere and want to hire people. Or the landscape may change at your former employer and it might be worth considering again for you. Or maybe none of that is the case, but hey, what does it cost you to be friendly and exchange an email with someone every now and then? I’ve been around for a while in this industry and in a variety of roles and I never once have found myself thinking, “ugh, I wish I hadn’t stayed in touch with that guy!”

Throughout the whole bizarre and awkward process of leaving a job, the main thing to remember is to be classy and professional and always to take the high road. It can be tempting to do otherwise and leave in a blaze of sour grapes, telling people what you really think. But your career is really a fancy wrapper around the concept of your own earning power, and your earning power is your ticket to comfort and security throughout your life. It’s not worth jeopardizing for a youtube-able moment that might go mildly viral for a few days or something. Take the long view and do your best to leave organizations with an even more positive view of you than they had when they made you the initial offer.

  • John Pazniokas

    Aww… I had my cat pictures all ready, and everything.

  • http://www.daedtech.com/blog Erik Dietrich

    “How to make 7 figures emailing cat pictures” will have to be a future post =)

  • mxmissile

    Excellent read! You should write about what to do if your in a crappy situation where you don’t like your job, but they are paying your more than anyone else is offering… ;-)

  • http://www.daedtech.com/blog Erik Dietrich

    Golden handcuffs, eh? I’ll put one in the drafts about that. Glad you liked this one, too!

  • Andy Bailey

    I was in a situation where the job and my employer were having a serious impact on my health. There was nothing positive to be gained in staying there but I didn’t have the courage to just leave and then seek a new position. In the end I did manage to pluck up the courage, resigned and used the time gained to recover and be able to seek the best position possible from those I had positive interviews with. In this case my employer was actually very sensitive to the issues behind my resignation, as opposed to ignoring them when attempting to get them addressed. It was almost certainly a relief for my employer to have me leave as much as it was for me to leave. Short story is: it is not always a good thing to not burn your bridges, many employers will give you good references even if the parting of the ways is not exactly harmonious. The result for me was that I was able to recover my health and find a very good job at the same time.

  • http://www.daedtech.com/blog Erik Dietrich

    It doesn’t sound like the parting could have been too bad, in the scheme of things, even if tense or frustrating at the time. I think of “burning a bridge” as creating a situation where there is no way someone would be willing to provide you a good reference.

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