In the October 8, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a boss threatens an employee who’s going to quit.


quitI am planning to quit my job, but my boss said to hold off on quitting until we can at least hire my replacement. Otherwise, he said, “I will make things very, very bad for you.” How should I respond to this?

Nick’s Reply

The challenges of quitting a job seem to be much on people’s minds. (See last week’s edition, Can we make employees pay for quitting?) Maybe it’s because more people are choosing to quit their jobs and move on?

Once you have decided to quit, you are already psychologically and emotionally “done” with the company. It’s best to leave as quickly as possible. The first mistake you made was to tell your boss you’re going to quit. (See Protect Your Job: Don’t give notice when accepting a new job.)

A boss who threatens you is not someone you should trust while he tries to find your replacement.

Don’t get burned when you quit

Under normal circumstances, you should act responsibly when you quit. If you can, you should offer help transferring your work to another employee. But your boss turned this situation into an abnormal one. In any case, the company is no longer your responsibility. Don’t let anyone tell you it is.

Don’t burn a bridge if it’s not necessary, but be brutally honest with yourself: Your boss is trying to burn you. If you file a complaint against him with HR, all you will do is put yourself at more risk.

While some kindly HR person may try to do right by you, remember that HR’s first obligation is to the company, not to you. You’ll be gone; your boss will still be part of the company. Thus HR’s job is to protect your boss before it protects you.

How to quit

Your boss’s threat makes this easy. Tender your resignation in writing.

[Your resignation] letter should be just one sentence because — sorry to be the cynic, but careers and lives might hinge on this — it can come back and bite you legally if it says anything more.

“I, John Jones, hereby resign my position with Acme Corporation.”

That’s it. Sign, seal and deliver. Any other details can be worked out through discussion, including… when you’ll get your last paycheck. If you are forced to take legal action for any reason, or if the company sues you for, say, stealing information, anything you put in your letter can be used against you.

Excerpted from Parting Company: How to leave your job p. 46

I would hand it to the HR manager personally.

How to Say It

Then say this:

“I would offer you two week’s notice but my boss has made this impossible. When I told him I was resigning, he threatened me. He said, ‘If you quit before we hire someone else, I will make things very, very bad for you.’ So as you can see, it would be unsafe for me to continue working here. How you handle my boss is up to you, but I will not participate in it. Please be advised that if my boss makes good on his threat to harm me after I leave here, I will turn the matter over to my attorney. My resignation is effective immediately. I would like to work out the details with you right now.”

Then expect HR to promptly process your paperwork.

Don’t complain, don’t explain. Keep it short and to the point. It’s not your job to help HR deal with the manager. There is no upside to you, but there is considerable risk.

Do not disclose to anyone where you are going to work next. You just don’t know what a bitter boss is capable of; for example, attempting to nuke your new job by making a disparaging phone call to your new employer. (See the sidebar above, More resources.)

A caution about exit interviews

If they ask you to do an exit interview, decline politely but firmly.

The best time for an employee to discuss concerns, dissatisfactions and suggestions with his employer is while he is a committed employee, not on the way out the door. There is no upside for an employee in doing an exit interview, other than having the chance to vent. And the potential risks are significant enough to warrant caution.

From “Exit Interviews; Just say NO” in Parting Company: How to leave your job, pp. 53-57

Get out

Do you think for a minute that if you stick around until your replacement is found, your angry, resentful boss isn’t going to make your life miserable anyway? Even if you are reassigned until you actually depart, you’ll be looking over your shoulder. During that time, even HR could make your life miserable.

The best response to such a threat is to protect yourself and to leave as soon as possible. You owe nothing to a company that has threatened you. That’s right: When the manager threatened you, the company threatened you because he represents the company. So does HR. You really are on your own. Get out.

I wish you the best.

Has your boss ever turned on you when you announced you were going to quit your job? What did you do? Was HR helpful? How did it turn out?

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  1. How would someone counter a bad reference (from angry boss man) in this situation? Since you left immediately, you have less of a chance of talking to fellow employees to vouch for you if boss man tries to sabotage your reputation.

    • @Mongoose: This is why it’s so important to stay in touch with your former co-workers. Try to gather and save personal contact info – tel#, e-mail, etc. There is nothing wrong with omitting an angry boss from your reference list. However, if you whether that person will likely be contacted anyway — with your permission or not — then you’d want to notify the new employer that so-and-so will likely give you a less-than-stellar reference because they resented your resignation. I’ve faced this with candidates I’ve placed. I warn the new employer ahead of time. Most of the time, they understand and discount or entirely avoid that reference. Why? Because I think everyone — including the new boss — has such problematic references themselves!

      • “Most of the time, they understand and discount or entirely avoid that reference. Why? Because I think everyone — including the new boss — has such problematic references themselves!”

        And any one that does have a problem, well, you don’t want to work for anyways.

      • Like the bosses who never heard of even one facility closing, let alone by the dozen, there are bosses who never heard of even one psychopath in the employ of the USPS, let alone by the dozen there and elsewhere. (I can’t make myself believe that this is literally true, but the attitudes that I’ve encountered would be understandable if it was literally true.)

  2. The writer said they are planning to quit the job. I sure hope they have a new job lined up. If not, yet another reason to never tell your employer that you are looking.
    The Boss may be the big loser here. Unless the writer is meticulous about documenting where they are, lots of stuff will be left hanging and unfinished. The Boss deserves it, though.

    • @Scott: You know, I totally missed that! The OP never said they had a new job lined up! I assume they did. If not, they could be in the lurch! Good point!

  3. I’ve heard this repeatedly (the bad behavior and the advice) and it makes me sad. As a manager, I tell employees all the time that, if they aren’t happy and are looking to leave, let me know and we’ll work together on a transition plan. And I’ve done exactly that, many times. I serve as a reference, I refer them to jobs that perhaps are a better fit, we work together on determining a last day, and we celebrate their new opportunity. Completely agree on exit interviews – waste of time. Everything else is just poor performance on the part of the manager and company.

    • @Annette: Good for you. I recently advised a manager in just such a case. He was fortunate that HIS manager was supportive of his decision to move on, and provided references, too. It’s how true professionals operate. They know that what goes around, comes around, and they will need the same courtesy at some point, too!

  4. I think this is a situation where (if you can afford it), you don’t even deal with HR directly. I would resign and leave immediately and have my lawyer send a letter regarding the threat and ironing out details regarding pay/vacation/benefits/etc. This is a situation where you need to get the company to crack down on the boss ASAP. Fastest and most assured way to do that is by letting them know you’ve retained counsel. Any company with half a set of brains will make sure that everything the boss does in regards to the departed employee is vetted and acceptable….

    This will also start a paper trail which is much better than an unrecorded conversation with HR.

    That said, lawyers cost money, so the individual will have to decide if it’s worth it. IMHO, the few hundred you’d spend on the lawyer drafting a letter is cheap insurance against the boss mucking things up in the future.

    • If a lawyer is too costly, at the very least, I would resign and leave immediately and then send a letter detailing the threat. Send it certified mail so you have the receipt. Demand that all future communications regarding the threat and things like benefits/vacation due/final pay/etc. be by written (not email) communications only. If anyone calls, politely tell them to address anything in writing. Start the paper trail in case you need it in the future. Send the letter *immediately* so you have proof the company was alerted to the threat and knew about it from day one of your departure.

    • @Chris: You’re taking an even more aggressive stance than I did, and I cannot argue with anything you’ve suggested. It’s another way to go, and in some cases will be warranted. A pricey lawyer is indeed a good investment and in the long run won’t really cost so much. The alternative — a drawn out controversy with the employer — could cost a lot more.

    • “That said, lawyers cost money, so the individual will have to decide if it’s worth it. IMHO, the few hundred you’d spend on the lawyer drafting a letter is cheap insurance against the boss mucking things up in the future.”

      I agree with this idea.

      One would think that writing a simple “I’m watching you” letter wouldn’t be that expensive and would head off any potential issues at the pass.


    There’s no leverage like a recorded conversation. In many states, the law is only one of the parties has to know about the conversation (means you only have to know). Regardless, if you are being threatened, then that trumps the two-party recording deal. I’m no lawyer but when a company makes a threat to you (heck anyone), they have negated their protections. Today’s society encourages everybody to be a meek wimp, to have no courage at all. It protects corporations and punishes the whistleblower.

    America wasn’t created by wimps. It took courage…it’s not like England said, “Do whatever you want, we’ll leave you alone.”

    Use your smart phone. No proof is just your claim, and we all know what that’s worth.

    • California is a two party state, both must consent to the recording.

      I know someone who was sued over one party recording, not jobs but a real estate transaction that was going badly.

      So proceed carefully.

    • @Jack: I’m with Bob. I’m not sure the two-party law is negated in the situation you describe. Be careful, folks. Consult a good lawyer if you’re not sure because if you violate the law, the employer will use it against you and you could lose where you should have won.

      • Not a lawyer here, but my understanding is that if you put the recording device in plain sight and/or say “I’m recording this” on the recording, then their continuing in the conversation is considered consent.

  6. I assumed likewise, that the writer had another job. Nor did he/she say what kind of relationship existed before the kimono was opened.

    The boss was an idiot or very inexperienced. The writer should have just exited, having done the decent
    thing, been puked on, no reason to hang around.

    I’d been fortunate. Left voluntarily several times, been tossed out a few other, but with both of us
    doing so professionally. On my side, I planned ahead made sure I did my best to finish what could be
    finished or next best handoffs set up. Worst I’ve is cultures or bosses who walked you immediately.

    My bosses for the most part were glad I was making a good move (one they couldn’t in all honesty match & sent me off with blessings…and I did likewise when I was a boss.

    This boss had positive ways to deal with a departure…perhaps not in that company..but there
    are “stick around bonuses” (which I’ve done), ask nicely if the depart date could be extended, or ask for some light support of replacements after you’re gone.

    It really is a small world, even smaller if your vocation is highly specialized. A well treated former employee can be both a booster for you & your company…and a solid part of your network.

  7. I’ve heard of services that contact former employers like this, to request a letter of reference on the employee. The former employee hires the service to contact the former employer, claiming to be a related business, and asking for a reference on the former employee. The idea is to see if a vengeful former employer is writing damaging references, which may be challenged legally. Is there any value to services like this? I’ve HEARD of such services, fortunately never worked in a place where I felt that necessary for me.

  8. Best advice EVER! Thank you Nick.

  9. I agree with Chris on his posts about getting a lawyer fast, once you’re dismissed or plan to quit. It’s the most effective method to put a stop to further shenanigans by the company if you were working in a hostile atmosphere. Immediately contact the HR in an email with a resignation brief (as suggested by Nick) and writing in detail via certified mail.
    I did this way to prevent any future problems from my end while I moved forward.

    • @JM: HR usually follows the instructions of the company’s legal department. Being ultra-conservative about any implied threat of litigation (the letter from your lawyer), the legal dept will likely advise HR to never say a word about you. It’s worth the investment in legal help.

  10. I see no reason to line the pockets of a lawyer, who may or may not be of any help, or to over react. This is “flatulence in a whirlwind” from a man-child manager making an idle threat. Sadly, this is far too often the norm today. The writer doesn’t owe this employer any notice, in fact, I would have walked out the door immediately! At-will-employment is just that, “At-will”. It cuts both ways. More and more people I know are foregoing the traditional two week notice. Bash the millennials all you want, but they’re spot on right about quitting without notice. When they’re ready to leave, they leave. People on sites like this worry too much about their “professional reputation”, but truth be told, this manager, and employer, will most likely forget the writer ever worked there, let alone ever existed, soon after his/her departure. Reputation is irrelevant here, especially when an idle butt-hurt threat, and childish unprofessional behavior like this, has been exhibited.

    • I completely agree with you. In my experience, the unreasonable, temper tantrum-prone manchild has been the prevailing managerial persona I’ve had the displeasure of working for and with over the years. The CEO of the last company I was a permanent employee of had a spotty record himself and been fired and pushed out of other companies he previously lead. It still didn’t stop him from picking up the phone and smearing people who dared to try and leave his current one. Sometimes it would work, sometimes it wouldn’t. Petty and vindictive? Yes. Kind of stupid given his own past? Ehhhh. Somehow he keeps getting hired into CEO roles despite it all. I think the idea of managers sitting on a higher plane of existence than their subordinates is obsolete. If I helped my last boss successfully embezzle millions of dollars out of my last company, is that really the glowing reference you the hiring manager should base your decision of my candidacy on?

  11. My employer recently had to lay off ~30% of the office staff. People received severance, their accumulate vacation days, etc., and 1 month of insurance, but as I understand it they had to do exit interviews. I am making an assumption that the exit interviews were required by HR to receive the severance, etc. While losing your position due to a big slow-down in the business is obviously different than quitting, but my question is can you be forced to do the exit interview in that situation in order to be eligible for the severance package?

  12. Years ago three of us left one local police as gency for another.

    First, our current agency told us “we could have the rest of the, with pay”, then shorted us when payday came.

    Then they tried to dock us pay for “equipment not turned in good condition” even though all our uniforms, etc., had been fresh dry-cleaned,repairs made etc.” Fortunately we all had the supply list that was signed off when we turned our gear in and we all went directly to payroll and picked up our checks so they couldn’t hold them.

    Finally, we found out that upper level people had been calling our new agency and badmouthing us.

    People can be such jerks.

    • @Jim: “Finally, we found out that upper level people had been calling our new agency and badmouthing us.”

      THAT is the worst of this. It could cost a person a job. That’s why I always advise, never tell anyone at your old job where you are going until after you’re in the new job at least two weeks!