How to Quit Your Job With Your Dignity and Career Intact

If you’re close to getting fired, call it.
Most bosses don’t actually like to fire people. It’s uncomfortable. Some bosses are cowardly, but many feel guilty about letting you go: as the person who enables you to pay your rent, your boss — even if he or she doesn’t particularly like you or your work — may indeed feel a bit parental towards you. If you are failing at your job, it’s an elephant in the room: probably plenty of people know it. If you’re really just a slacker loser who is taking someone else’s money and deliberately not providing any value, then you’re aware of it, but if it’s just a bad situation and/or you’re not the right person for the job, you should get out before you are branded as that slacker loser.

I was once in a job at which I was failing. I was the Director of Marketing for a small dotcom that didn’t actually have a product to sell. At least the programmers made something you could see and use: our website has a new (free) feature! As the head of marketing, even when I got people to sign up for our site or got us mentioned in the press, the impact on our bottom line was nil. The CEO and I grew increasingly awkward in our conversations. He worked fifteen feet away from me. Ultimately, he made the new secretary quiz me about everything I was working on and the names of all my contacts (she took notes on a legal pad) before he brought me into his office and told me it wasn’t working out. I was 24.

In retrospect, I should’ve called it way, way earlier. Maybe two months earlier. (Obviously, one must achieve a balance between overstaying your welcome and squirreling away those last few paychecks, as above). The CEO had once liked me and thought highly enough of me to hire me for a serious, important job. Ideally, when the downward slide had become irreversible, I’d have gone into his office and made his job easy for him by pointing out that I had had some good ideas for marketing the site, but that having me there on a day-to-day basis obviously wasn’t working out. Then I’d have given him a plan for phasing me out and bringing in someone better suited to the job. I could’ve helped find and train that person, and then possibly still kept the company as a consulting client. Instead, I hung on, day after unproductive day, until the relationship was destroyed.

If you’re bold enough to point out that a job isn’t a good fit for you, you’re more likely to be seen as a peer — rather than a pariah — by your former boss. Think about the exes you’re still friends with — they’re probably not the ones from those relationships in which you both hung on for several months of incompatibility- exacerbating misery even though you both knew it had to end.

Skip the exit interview.
While smaller companies may not have formal exit interviews, the principle is the same: there’s no need to litigate all the reasons you’re leaving, just as there’s no need to tell someone you’re breaking up with every single thing you don’t like about him. (The guy who broke my heart when I was sixteen told me that I was “too smart” for him, which was certainly a lie, but it’s the kind of lie it turns out that I like a lot! It turns out he had just met the woman he was going to marry.

They’ve been married for over a decade, and he and I still chat, which wouldn’t be possible if he had also told me whatever else was not so great about me when I was a teenager, like my social skills and those colored bands on my braces).

Penelope Trunk said something wise in a recent post:

Don’t do an exit interview. If they wanted to hear your ideas about how to make things better, you wouldn’t be quitting, would you? So this is really just a way for you to burn bridges and annoy people. Don’t fall into the trap. If they insist on an exit interview, say nothing negative. At all. Send a thank you note. Anyone you worked closely with should get a hand-written thank you note. Bring up specific times when they surprised you with kindness, made your work better, invigorated you with their own contagious brilliance or creativity. And, if you are thinking that you work with people who merely make you want to hit your head on a brick wall, remember this: Intelligent people can learn from anyone.

[Also see Penelope's 9 tips for quitting a job gracefully.]

Make it seem to your coworkers as though you are upgrading your life, not merely recoiling from something negative.
Even if your job is an unjust, exploitative hell, you don’t just want to be remembered as “the person who dislikes working in an unjust, exploitative hell.” You want to be thought of as the person with the prescience to get out of that and start her own business (I talked here about how starting a business is much easier than most people assume), or go see the world, etc. If you decide to sign up for one of those go-teach-English-in-Turkey programs, make sure you also start a travel blog, or write a grammar manual for Turkish students, or write a book for Americans on how to swear in Turkish — it’s not hard to raise the bar in a profession that’ll take just about anybody who speaks English. Seeming like a go-getter actually takes a lot less effort than suffering through dragging your ass someplace awful every morning.

If you had a dream of quitting your job via inflatable slide or hilarious YouTube video, I hope I’ve talked you out of it. It’s totally possible to have a million fans on Facebook, a line of t- shirts supporting you, and still be broke (or in jail). It’s also totally possible to do awesome things and actually get paid for the next several decades.

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    • toonmonk

      Great points! I left my job recently and found having a plan of action the only way to stay sane and not burn all my bridges.. Keep up the great posts!

    • Eileen

      This blog needs a ‘like’ button. I loved this post – it always feels better in the long run, I think, to quit gracefully. No matter how much your boss sucked.

    • MC

      This article perfectly sums up my view on Steven Slater. I’m sure it looks cool to quit like him. However, the consequences are totally not worth it. Currently, I’m dissatisfied with my job and if possible, I would love to just hand my resignation letter in to my manager. But, after thinking about it thoroughly, is it even worth all these dramas? Plus, I totally have no back up plans if I do quit.

      Hence, I’m so glad you wrote this article. Now, I really seriously need to think about a backup plan. Thank you for another great article!

    • eEv

      Agreed… you never know who knows who. I heard a story from a casting director once about how he’d been sitting in on an audition– this girl gave a great performance, and the director seemed very pleased with her. The guy telling the story went out to go to the bathroom and when he came back, there was a big red X on the girl’s resume because someone in wardrobe had said she was “difficult to work with.” Best not to piss anybody off.

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