Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
Some people look forward to quitting their jobs. They daydream about it, planning out elaborate quitting fantasies, like spelling out “I QUIT” in printer cartridges before flouncing out the door or emailing a lengthy list of heretofore privately nursed grievances staffwide on their final day of work. But I’ve actually found that a more common theme in the letters I get for my work advice column Ask a Manager is basically the opposite: conscientious people who like what they do—or who at least like their co-workers—and feel incredibly nervous about the prospect of resigning from their jobs.
Throughout my decade of writing Ask a Manager, my mail has been full of letters from people who need to quit their jobs and are freaking out about it: How do I say it? When do I say it? What if my boss is upset? And won’t everything go to hell for my colleagues after I’m gone?
In particular, many people fear that quitting a job is a personal betrayal of their boss and/or their co-workers, like the letter writer who was seriously considering turning down a job that paid more money for fewer hours with a shorter commute and a more appealing work focus, because he felt guilty about the extra work he would be sticking his boss with:
I made a list today of the things I do each day, and the thought of putting all these tasks back on my boss (we’re the only two people in our department) is causing me real distress. … I would be crazy to turn down the new job, right? I just don’t know how to accept the fact that I’ll be sticking my boss with 80+ hour work weeks.
Or the person who described her boss as a toxic, lying micromanager who had been caught stealing money (!) and rarely showed up for work—but when the time to give notice approached, she asked:
Why do I feel so attached to this place and why am I suddenly reluctant to leave? … I have a golden opportunity to move into a position with guaranteed room for advancement, education assistance, a stellar benefits package, and documented stability. It would be a big gold star on my resume. And most likely I’d leave behind the emotional rollercoaster of my current position, and the harbored resentment toward my boss. It’s a no brainer, right? So why do I feel so torn? Is this normal?!
Another common theme is the idea that now is a particularly awful time to leave, because only an ogre would leave during a busy season or when an important event is coming up. But most of the time, there’s never a good time to leave, so giving into that fear would mean you’d need to stay in your job until you hit retirement. For example:
I am a corporate event planner. … There is never a “good” time for me to quit because there is not a lull time where I could transfer over event details or plans to someone else in the company. … I don’t want to leave my manager and teammates with a huge mess … but I’ve been trying to quit for almost two years and can’t find a time where I could quit with a clear conscience.
This person even lied and said she was moving so that she could avoid saying she just wanted to quit:
I couldn’t come up with a solid reason to quit, so I lied and said that I was leaving town to follow my boyfriend. In reality, there was about a 15 percent chance of that happening.
The odd thing about all this anxiety is that quitting a job is not usually the bomb-throwing act people fear it will be. To state the obvious: In the vast majority of cases, quitting your job will be met with mild to moderate disappointment and a meeting or two to transition your projects. Then everyone will move forward and adjust to the idea that you’ll be gone (often more quickly than you might prefer).
From the manager’s side of the desk, yes, it’s disappointing to lose a good employee, and yes, it’s an inconvenience to have to hire and train someone new. Sometimes it’s even genuinely upsetting and, in rarer cases, it can legitimately be a major setback for the company. But while managers might have a terrible sinking feeling of “oh, crap, nooooo” when they hear the news, reasonable bosses do understand that people move on. They might really wish you were staying, they might curse the timing, they might even think you’re making the wrong move, they might initially act somewhat brusque and miffed—but they will not ultimately hold a grudge against you for leaving.
Of course, there are some managers who react poorly to resignations, taking it as a personal betrayal rather than a business decision. And if that does happen, you can calmly reply, “I’ve given it a lot of thought and this is the right decision for me, but let’s talk about what I should do between now and my ending date to help with the transition.” And if things get really bad, you can always resort to, “I’d like to work out my remaining time and leave things in good shape, but if we can’t work together effectively, should we move up my ending date?” But if your boss explodes in rage because you’ve resigned, you’ve just gotten some awfully well-timed validation of your decision to leave.
So why is it that so many people dread the prospect of quitting a job, even when the job has made them miserable and even when they’re leaving for something much better (higher pay, more interesting work)?
In part, I suspect it’s that work simply feels incredibly personal to us. All of the things that are supposed to be “just business”—how much we’re paid, what kind of recognition our projects get, how frequently the boss cancels meetings with us—actually feel like pointed reflections on our worth. We assume this runs both ways and that therefore when we choose to walk away from a job, we’re signaling a kind of personal rejection to and of others. Seen in that light, leaving a job feels less like a business decision to sell our labor to a different bidder and more akin to a breakup where we’re saying, “I no longer like you the same way I used to, and for some time now I’ve been planning to leave you.” Then throw in that we all want to think we’re indispensible and will be terribly difficult to replace, and we assume we’re delivering devastating news. And really, at some level, maybe we want it to be devastating. If an employer isn’t wrecked at losing us, how much did they ever really value us?
It’s no surprise, then, that anxiety about quitting appears to be highly correlated with how conscientious you are about your work (more so than other factors that you might expect to play a role, like how junior or senior you are). People who are deeply invested in doing good work seem to agonize far more over leaving their jobs: They worry more about the response they’ll get, and they worry more about what will happen once they’re gone.
But this kind of angst over resigning does real damage. It can lead people to make bad decisions for themselves, like putting off a job search so as not to inconvenience an employer or their co-workers, or delaying announcing their resignation so long that they’re no longer giving a courteous amount of notice. Mostly, though, it keeps people mired in really unhealthy thinking about work: in the idea that loyalty demands that we stay in jobs past the point that it’s in our best interest to be there. We’d be better off—and workplaces would be healthier—if we agreed that all we owe employers is good work, pleasantly delivered, for however long the arrangement works for both of us.