The Ethics of Quitting

Quitting a job is never easy, particularly if the length of employment spans several years. The process can be akin to a divorce, the parties may have gradually drifted apart or one may have betrayed the other. As much as we may fool ourselves that our contractual relationship with our employer is purely professional, there is an inevitable emotional entanglement that make can make navigating the ethical challenges of quitting a challenge. A long term of employment has mean’t considerable investment in time, money and effort by both parties. The employee is likely to have been involved with important proprietary aspects of the business which may make the employer jumpy, the legal and ethical considerations for managing sensitive information are important. (A recent example from the Formula 1 world).

In a less than amicable situation, the employee may harbour strong feelings of dissatisfaction and frustration. The end of employment can be an anxious time with ethical considerations surrounding when to quit and how go about it with grace, integrity intact. Taking the moral high ground with an ethical approach provides a sound perspective for ensuring the legacy left behind remains true to the larger body of work, allowing the employee to hold their head high as they move into a new phase of life and career.

Reasons for leaving

There may be many reasons for deciding to quit your job, but before the resignation letter is sent it is important to be ready to go through with it. Resignation should not be used as an ultimatum to gain more. It is easy to forget that everyone is replaceable and if you are going to use quitting as a tactic to improve your lot, you had better be ready when the letter begging you to stay doesn’t arrive. Even if it does, think about how the relationship will be altered as a result. Can you sustain your working relationship after revealing how you really feel? Will trust and integrity be undermined so the faux resignation process leads to simply delaying the inevitable? If you get a better deal and all is well, then good for you, but from an ethical standpoint, you may have damaged your situation irretrievably, even if you appear to get a better result in the short term. If you enjoy your work but are struggling to overcome difficulties, it may pay to raise your concerns before the quality of your work is compromised and your reputation suffers. If you find a better offer elsewhere, or determine that your situation is irreconcilable, then it is time to consider how to go about quitting.

Don’t let emotions influence your conduct when quitting.

Assuming you are ready to quit and not look back its time to take a step back from the emotional elements that have inevitably been a part of driving you to this point. Do you feel undervalued, overworked and generally resenting of your manager, your position or colleagues? Reaching the point of saying enough is enough is significant, it is not easy to finally make such a difficult decision, but it is important to detach yourself from your emotions and keep things business like. Your contract will have clear terms and conditions for handling resignation including the notice period and severance terms. Consider these carefully and ensure you are fully aware of what will follow and what your rights are. It may be helpful to engage a lawyer for advice to ensure there are no surprises lurking in the fine print that could mean that notice period is longer than expected or the unclaimed leave you were expecting to be paid out will have to be taken during the notice period or forfeited. Remember, regardless of what led up to this point, the legacy you leave behind can be in large part determined by the dignity and grace you show as you walk out the door. Burning bridges is never a good idea and can easily lead to a tarnished reputation and rumours that have a habit of showing up in the promising new opportunity you are so looking forward to embarking on. Sending an email to allstaff@mycompany.com repudiating your poor treatment and exposing your boss for all of her loathsome ineptitude may sound like a good idea two glasses into a bottle of red, but you’ll never regret not sending that email. Sage advice once given to me by a great leader is to draft an email. Fill it with all of the wit filled double entendre’s you can muster, invent new words to express how you really feel and expunge every ounce of bitter resentment from your soul. But, don’t put a name in the ‘To’ box and when you are done, delete it. Forever. Gone. Now that is off your chest, begin fresh with a shorter but less eloquent and apopoletic composition.

Resigning, in short.

The act of resignation should be simple and to the point, there is no need to provide a laundry list of reasons for why you are quitting, the wrongs you have suffered and how much better your new job is going to be. Give your manager a ‘heads up’ before sending the formal letter, as much out of courtesy as professionalism. Don’t start the rumour among your colleagues so your manager is the last to know, regardless of your reasons for leaving. Showing respect for the process will earn far more credence as a result. The resignation letter need not be longer than one or two sentences which expresses a desire to end the contract in accordance with the severance terms. You may want to stop short of thanking the company for the opportunities provided, but it is often a good idea to maintain platitudes in the documents that mark your legal interactions with your employer.

Phase three, serving time.

Depending on the length of the notice period, this phase can be one of the most challenging. Finding the motivation to even turn up when you are slowly crossing days of the calendar is not easy. Use this time to tie up loose ends, assist with the transition process to the remaining members of your team or help train new comers. Try not to be open about your boredom and anticipation of your new position (or new-found freedom if you are not going to a new job straight away). If you did a good job of resigning, there should be little to fear during your notice period. Some colleagues may be jealous or resentful, this is more a reflection of their own dissatisfaction and should not be taken personally. In a few short weeks, it will all be behind you and these day-to-day concerns will bear little significance.

Be sure to temper your expectations. When word gets around it is unlikely people will fall over themselves to congratulate you on your long and valuable service to the company. No one will suddenly realise how much extra work you did, if they didn’t recognise or acknowledge it at the time, it isn’t going to happen now. And, if you are waiting for someone to realise that your position should be replaced by two or more people, don’t. That may happen eventually, but often times these situations become a matter of pride for management. If they immediately right the wrongs you feel you have suffered, that will serve only to highlight their own oversights and inadequacies. Unfortunately, quitting should not be considered an act of justice but a phase of personal empowerment, look ahead and not back, the view is much more refreshing. There is no martyrdom in quitting, it’s not them, it’s you, whether true or not, that is how the company sees it, so suck it up princess.

Leave the past behind

So, the day has finally arrived, you collect the last of your things and say your farewells. If you’re lucky there was a morning tea (which you probably had to shout for the team) and you are free. A few moments after the long sigh of relief you will notice a void. This place that has consumed so much of your waking and (possibly unconscious) thought is now reduced to a line on your resumé. It may end in a full stop on the page, but inevitably you will carry some baggage with you. This is not necessarily a bad thing, you have gained valuable skills and experience in your former role and this will serve you throughout your life and career, but there are likely to be scars as well. It is important to recognise the difference when you start your new journey and not carry the weight of this baggage with you. Begin fresh with an open mind, avoid phrases like “you do it like that? We used to do it like this”. Consider your place at the bottom of the food chain in the new organisation and use your experience to add value. Timing is important however, turning up on day one with a list of changes and improvements will not win you any friends. Ease into it, sow the seeds, and let nature take its course.

But, this article is not about fresh starts, it is about quitting, with dignity and ethics upheld. Let’s sum up:

  1. Don’t play at quitting, if you are sure this is the right decision, be prepared to leave, then do it.
  2. Give your manager a heads up before you send your resignation letter, it’s courtesy.
  3. Avoid listing your reasons for quitting in the resignation letter, save it for the exit interview.
  4. Consider your contract carefully to ensure there are no surprises when serving your notice.
  5. Be respectful of those left behind, there is no martyrdom in quitting.
  6. Maintain your professionalism during your notice period, it is a transition phase, just be patient.
  7. Don’t take all of your baggage with you, take the good, leave the bad, no one else cares.

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