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.
There’s a common dream that unites workers across fields: the Spectacular Resignation Fantasy. (Well, that and more paid vacation.) Anyone who has ever had a terrible boss or toxic co-workers or who has been overworked and underappreciated has almost certainly fantasized about quitting their job in a blaze of glory—a dramatic, vindicating exit, usually involving profanity, a dismayed boss who suddenly realizes how devastated they’ll be without you, and a triumphant flounce out the door.
This person’s description of the Spectacular Resignation Fantasy speaks for many:
I had a quitting fantasy at one terrible job where I dramatically fling open my boss’s door, jump up on her desk and joyfully shout, “You are no longer the boss of me! I quit! I QUIT! KISS IT, YOU F’ING LUNATIC!” while flinging stacks of papers in the air, then sweeping through the lobby in a glorious haze of cheering coworkers while a suddenly-materialized group of backup singers/dancers perform Jackson Five’s “One More Chance” as I burned rubber out of the parking lot. Just thinking about it made me happy for months while my boss screamed at me in one-on-ones.
Some people indulge their desire to make a glorious exit one step further and genuinely contemplate sabotaging their employer on their way out, such as this person who asked me if she could delete her work files when she resigned:
I am the only graphic designer at a small IT company. … After two years of being incredibly unhappy here and watching my employers really mistreat their employees, I am excited to say that I got a new job that I’m very excited about.
I’ve been wondering how much of my work I can leave with and not let them keep. Obviously things like logos and such is different, but I honestly don’t want to leave them any of the source files for infographics or even some of the marketing stuff that I’ve done. I want to leave them with as little as possible.
I admit that me entertaining this idea is fueled by some personal feelings about my bosses and the way they run their business. … It’s vindictive and petty and, yes, immature, I know. … I realize it’s unprofessional, but this is a bridge I’m not worried about burning either.
(For the record, that’s a bad idea! Your employer owns the work you produced as part of your job and will be able to come after you legally.)
Someone else asked me if he could refuse to return his company truck when he quit, as payback for the employer’s shoddy treatment of him and his co-workers:
We were purchased by a gigantic multibillion dollar company over a year ago, and ever since they have been piling more and more work on us as more divisions have been acquired. Everyone who works for our company is completely exhausted and people are quitting in droves.
I am thinking about finding another job, and when I leave I want to stick it them the best I can. What I would like to do is not turn in my company pickup and see how much money they have to spend to get it back from me. Since the truck was issued to me, they cannot just report it stolen, can they? I am assuming that it will end up being a civil matter and they will have to take me to court in order to legally take back ownership of the truck.
(Also a bad idea! A multibillion-dollar company is going to have no problem pursuing this legally, and the aftermath will hurt the truck thief more than it hurts the company.)
Of course, far more people contemplate this kind of sabotage than actually go through with it. When you feel mistreated by an employer, it’s gratifying to imagine payback. It’s deeply satisfying to imagine seeing justice served—and being the one to serve it.
In fact, that’s what spectacular quitting stories have in common: They’re about taking back control and meting out justice, while often flipping the metaphorical bird as you do it.
No surprise, then, that one common theme is a sort of settling of moral accounts, forcing the company to confront the error of its ways:
One guy I worked with quit, and left up an out-of-office message with stupid quotes from all of his bosses and seniors over the year—attributed to them by name. Because our IT is so notoriously bad, it took well over a week from them to fully disable his account so that the out-of-office stopped being sent.
On the other hand, sometimes the most dazzling resignations are just F-yous, plain and simple:
I worked in high school at a mismanaged grocery chain that is now out of business. I was a cashier but they had a 16-year-old girl working behind the fish counter (which was illegal) and who was not being paid properly for the work she was doing (because she wasn’t supposed to be doing it!). On Sunday, the beginning of the pay period, she clocked in, wrote “I QUIT” in cod, haddock, and tilapia filets in the seafood counter, and clocked out.
There’s also this more, uh, primitive delivery of the same message:
When I was a supervisor at a well-known retailer, an employee in the garden center was reprimanded for something or other. He became so incensed that he went to the corner of the garden area, dropped his drawers, and pooped on a pallet. Then he quit.
In reality, dramatic resignations usually don’t go over quite as the exiting employee probably hoped. Rarely does an employer think, “We really brought this upon ourselves” or “We should have treated Jane better when we had the chance.” Rather than delivering righteous justice, these exits more commonly get the employee labeled as the problem—with their dramatic departure taken as evidence of that.
And sometimes an attempt at a perfect mic drop exit doesn’t quite work the way we saw it in our heads, as this story painfully illustrates:
The summer after my first year of college, I worked at a call center doing cold-call sales. One of my coworkers ripped off his headset one day, screamed, “I QUIT, THIS PLACE SUCKS” and stalked out. He got in his ancient Nissan minitruck, put it in gear, and attempted to drive over the landscaping between his parking spot and the driveway. He bottomed out trying to drive over a bush, got stuck, and ended up having to come back in and ask for help pushing his car off the landscaping from the coworkers he’d just staged his great exit from, his face a particularly remarkable shade of vermilion.
Ultimately, the best quitting revenge is simply quitting. When you’re at the point of fantasizing about creative or dramatic ways to leave, it’s usually a sign that it’s time to start planning a professional exit. Get out of there with your reputation intact, move on to something else, and clear out the space in your brain that employer has been occupying.