Giving notice when you resign: 6 ways to avoid trouble

Giving notice when you resign: 6 ways to avoid trouble

Question

I’m getting conflicting advice about giving notice before I resign my job after accepting a new job offer. A career coach told me I have to give notice or ruin my reputation. (“Don’t’ burn bridges.”) A guy I used to work with got burned when he gave notice: his boss demanded he stay a month to train somebody! Another was immediately escorted to the door by company security. (He was counting on a couple of weeks’ more salary.) Not all stories are bad but I don’t like to take risks when I can avoid them. I’d prefer to just make a clean cut without notice. Do you have any tips to play it safe?

Nick’s Reply

giving-noticeI’ll summarize what I think are six important considerations that should help keep you out of trouble when giving notice that you’re quitting your job. I’ll emphasize up front that you must do your own calculation and decide for yourself what is your best course of action.

1. Check your obligations before giving notice

It’s astonishing how many people think their basic freedoms vanish when it comes to their jobs. Just as you’re free to move from one state to another when you wish, without anyone’s permission, you’re free to change jobs anytime you wish (with or without giving notice) — unless you signed an agreement accepting limits on this choice. Check the obligations you agreed to.

Do you have an employment contract? (These are rare in the U.S. and usually involve executive positions.) If you do, read it carefully, or have an employment attorney review it. Keep in mind that the job offer you signed may be a kind of contract, and it may incorporate by reference your company’s employee policy manual — which may say something about a notice requirement. It matters what you sign and agree to when you accept a job.

2. Check for “employment at will” law

In most U.S. jurisdictions employment is “at will” — your company can terminate you at any time for any or no reason, without giving you any notice. But if you work in an “at will” state, you can likewise quit. Whether you should quit without notice is usually your choice. Make sure you know the employment law in your state — and review what you have contractually agreed to.

3. Check your company’s history

Nose around before you decide. Has your employer made life difficult for other employees that quit without notice? Some employers actually handle resignations with aplomb. It’s worth finding out your company’s actual practices because that may factor into how you calculate your risk.

4. Check your reputation risk

That career coach is correct: resigning without notice can damage your professional reputation. (Your employer may put you on a no-rehire list.) If word gets out, it might damage your rep with other employers.

However. This is a risk you must calculate. While quitting without notice can be a crappy thing to do, it might be prudent anyway. Sometimes we have to make tough choices. If giving notice might put you in serious jeopardy, avoiding the risk may be preferable to doing what’s expected.

Now let’s talk about potential jeopardy.

5. Check the consequences

Giving notice because “it’s the right thing to do” might trigger consequences you haven’t considered. Like the friend you mentioned, you may not get two weeks yourself — of additional salary or time between jobs that you expected. You may be told to leave immediately without a chance to gather your personal belongings. (“HR will mail your stuff to you.”)

If you work in sales or get paid a bonus, policy might dictate that you don’t get the money unless you’re employed there on the date it is set to be paid — and unless you provide notice. Quitting without notice may trigger instant recovery of educational or relocation investments the company made in you. If you work on a “draw” in sales, you might actually owe the company money it advanced you against future commissions. (See The 6 Gotchas of Goodbye.)

An employer cannot withhold your pay, but you must understand what constitutes pay in your specific case. But don’t run from choices like these. Depending on the financial rewards and professional opportunities provided by your new job, it may be worth resigning without notice.

6. Check the spite factor

Tendering a resignation usually elicits this question: “Where are you going to work next?” It may seem as innocent as HR’s request that you sit for an “exit interview” and explain yourself. But you owe no one any explanations, or information about your future.

I’ve seen spiteful employers go out of their way to nuke a departing employee’s new job offer. Is there any chance your old boss would contact your new employer and try to poison your well? Please think about this. That offer you accepted could be rescinded. In my experience, it’s rare. But if it does happen, the consequences for you could be dire. A risk might seem small, but when the cost is potentially immense, I don’t think taking a chance is prudent..

My advice: Don’t tell anyone even remotely associated with your old company where you’re going until you’re already there. “No offense, but I’ll be happy to get in touch once I’ve settled into my new job and we can have lunch.”

I’m not suggesting you should never give notice when resigning. But if you decide to part company suddenly, take time to evaluate the risks, and to calculate the potential costs and benefits of quitting without notice. Is your new job worth it?

Do you give notice when you resign a job? Have you been happy with the outcome? Are there circumstances when you think not giving notice in advance of leaving an employer is prudent?

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Does your job match its original job description?

Does your job match its original job description?

In the October 29, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter an executive is concerned about the role of the job description in employee attrition.

Question

job description

I’m president of a $20 million company, privately owned. Due to unusual turnover, I met with my head of HR and the affected managers. They said the “talent pool” isn’t good any more. HR’s exit notes indicated poor performance and lack of skills as the reasons for termination. So why did you hire them, I asked. They were the best candidates, they said. Then I read the job descriptions they used. Lists as long as a 3 iron. Nine or 10 “tasks,” even more “qualifications required,” and then a stack of “we prefer that you haves.” I asked them, is there something wrong with our process? Are we asking for too much and not training new hires enough? What are your thoughts about a problem like this? It’s serious.

Nick’s Reply

Job descriptions? Here’s what I think of job descriptions and people that write them (with apologies to Monty Python):

      Commentary on job descriptions
I feel your pain. But the idea that the “talent pool” has deteriorated is balderdash. Your suspicion that there’s something wrong with the process is correct. The conventional interview and assessment process assumes that in six months a new hire will be doing what was defined in the original job description.

That’s almost never the case. I believe that’s a big reason why new hires fail. So, how can you hire for the changing nature of the work?

The job description

When a manager needs work done, HR uses a process that starts with the manager describing the requirements of the job. This conventionally includes the tasks, a list of necessary qualifications, and some flowery promises about the company environment.

HR adds whatever it believes will attract the best and most applicants. Too often, HR’s largesse exceeds the limits of reality. For example, a job for a programmer will require “at least 5 years’ experience” with a scripting language that was invented only two years ago. HR always figures more is better — but doesn’t bother to check with the manager. Or, a go-fer job in the marketing department is characterized as “Senior Marketing Staff,” because it should attract really talented go-fers.

What happens after the job description

Even if the job description is truthful and accurate, almost every job runs head-long into a wall. Six months into it, the new hire is not doing what they were hired to do, but different work and usually more work. That’s because most jobs evolve to fill the ever-changing needs of a business.

The problem is, employers don’t hire for changing needs. HR takes a blurry (and wishful) snapshot of “a job,” fixed in time and in someone’s imagination, larding it with enough “requirements” to make a purple squirrel gag. (There are other ways HR goes off the rails with its hiring methods. See Why does HR waste time, money and the best job candidates?)

Deliverables

Can a “job description” ever be a useful tool in recruiting and hiring? As a headhunter, I’ve always read job descriptions once, then tossed them aside. I call the manager and find out what kind of evolving work the manager really needs done over the next year or two.

Here’s what I ask about:

What’s the problem? What do you want your new hire to make, fix or improve?

What’s the deliverable? What should the new hire deliver to the person working downstream from them? For example, a design engineer needs to deliver a certain part of a subsystem design to the system designer or project manager. What does that part of the subsystem look like and what must it do?

What’s the schedule? What do you need the new hire to deliver or accomplish in the first week, month, three months, six and 12 months on the job? Be specific. The deliverables must be defined in objective terms everyone agrees on. They must be measurable in amount, degree and quality — what are the metrics?

How does the work fit? Finally, and perhaps most important, how will the new hire fit into the larger work flow and objectives of the team, the department and the entire company? This is key, because it suggests what else the new hire must be able to do or learn to do.

Please note that your HR people are in no position to ask these questions and to discuss the details that underpin them. Your managers must do it. While a good headhunter can help them, you don’t need a headhunter if you get on top of this yourself.

Are you doing what you were hired for?

There’s a thing I do when I speak to seasoned managers in executive MBA programs at Wharton, UCLA, Northwestern and other business schools. I ask for a show of hands:

“Who has a job where what you were doing six months into it matched the job description you interviewed for?”

Of course, I get a lot of hoots and LMAOs. No one has ever asserted they were doing what they were hired for to start with.

What to ask job applicants

I suggest you direct your managers to answer the questions above about every job they think they need to fill. My guess is they will find that some jobs have no justification or value. I think they will find that the work that needs to be done is best defined in terms of deliverables that continue to change.

Three good questions for job applicants might be:

  1. Can you please show us how you would deliver X, Y and Z in three months, six months and 12 months?
  2. How would you help these 3 other teams deliver their objectives?
  3. How would you help the company achieve goals A, B and C?

I won’t even get into discussing your company’s plans for new projects, products or services — but your managers need to assess whether job candidates can shift gears quickly to meet the company’s changing needs. One good way to do this is to have applicants spend time with your teams before you hire them, so everyone can see how everyone else thinks and works. (But don’t go here: I think they expect me to work for free.) Of course, it’s your responsibility (and your managers’) to show applicants how you teach employees to do new kinds of work.

Please forget about filling jobs. Think about hiring people who can do changing work and deliver specific outcomes, and who can intelligently discuss how they might contribute to your company’s specific objectives.

There’s not a job description in this mix.

Does the work you do today match the job description you were hired for? How should employers assess job applicants to maximize success for everyone? What’s the most effective way you’ve assessed or been assessed for a job?

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Naive young grad blows it

In the August 25, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a new grad ignores the line between life and job.

Question

I’ve gotten myself into a bit of a situation and need your advice. I’m taking my boss to a distant, major resort because my parents have a place there and I foolishly offered it up to our small department as a “retreat” — not thinking my boss would actually approve this.

oopsWell, my boss said yes. He’s in his twenties and was thrilled. Now we have plans to go in a few weeks. The dilemma is that I’ve been poached during the past week by two great companies and both want me to come in for an in-person interview lasting several hours. Both jobs would pay about 50% more than I’m making now.

Although I don’t have an offer yet, I want to be prepared in the case one of these companies does extend one. Initially, I was going to use the offer as leverage at my current company. Then it dawned on me that if my boss doesn’t match the offer, or counter it with something close, I will face a very difficult choice: take the new job and put my two weeks in during the retreat, or accept that my current company is not going to pay me what I deserve.

I’m 22 and graduated from college very recently. What should I do?

Nick’s Reply

Sheesh! You are in a bind. New grads almost always blow it when they start work. It’s how we all learn the ropes, so don’t take my reaction as ridicule. I’ve been there, done that. Your problem is that you’re compounding your problems over your naivete.

Forgive me if I lecture. There are a few important lessons here for new grads.

You’re not in college any more.

Don’t make the mistake of mixing work with your personal life. You can’t negotiate for a job at your parents’ house while your boss is eating your mom’s pancakes and drinking your dad’s beer. Would you take a date to your parent’s vacation house so you could tell her you’re breaking up?

We blow it when we forget there’s a line between fun and work. Of course, in college there’s no such line. Remind yourself regularly that you’re not in college any more. If I were you, I’d probably beg off this trip.

Two job opportunities are not a choice.

I know you’re excited about those two jobs. I don’t even care that you’ve been at your current job for only a short time while you’re entertaining them. Calculate the costs of any choice you make, and do what’s best for you. But keep one thing in mind: You have no choices to make until you have a bona fide offer in hand. (See I’m still waiting for the job offer!)

Don’t jump the gun and risk your job over a fantasy. Take it from a headhunter: Most “great opportunities” go south. Don’t presume anything until it’s real. Risking a real job for an uncertain opportunity is not prudent.

Don’t use an offer to get a raise.

Either take the new job, or keep your mouth shut and keep your old job and salary. The only decision to make is, which deal is best for you? (See The ethics of juggling job offers.) If the new job and offer are to your liking, then go. When you use a job offer to extort a raise, you will likely wind up on the street with no job at all:

To a company, a counter-offer is sometimes a purely pragmatic tactic that enables it to sever a relationship on its own terms and in its own good time. That is, companies use counter-offers defensively. A company would rather have a replacement employee lined up, and a counter-offer buys time. The extra salary offered may be charged against the employee’s next raise, and the work load may increase. The employee is a marked man (or woman).

From Parting Company: How to leave your job, p. 52, “What’s the truth about counter-offers?”

If you dangle a new job offer in front of your boss to get a raise — especially while he’s at your vacation house — you’ll probably blow it.

Your boss is not your friend.

I’ve had bosses that I liked; bosses who cared about me and had my back. But any good boss acts in the interest of the employer when the chips are down. If you want to pretend otherwise, I wish you luck because you’re going to need it. It isn’t your boss’s duty to be your friend. His first duty is to make you a good employee.

For this reason, never tip off your boss that you have alternative job plans. If you disclose your plans, and neither of the two jobs you’re contemplating pans out, you’ll be a marked man. Odds are high that sometime soon you’ll be ushered out the door — if your boss doesn’t fire you instantly right under your own father’s roof.

Choices are often painful.

That’s why it’s important to act quickly, accept the consequences, and move on. You have put yourself in a nasty spot. Assuming an offer (or both) come through, do you tell your boss now that the trip is off — because you don’t want to face him with your resignation after entertaining him? (I don’t think there’s anything wrong with citing “personal reasons” for calling it off.) Or do you want to tell him you’re quitting during — or right after — the retreat?

Both scenarios stink. One stinks less. I wish I could wave a magic wand, but I can’t. You have to choose. It’s going to hurt, no matter which way you go.

Take some time and identify all the issues. Figure out how they’re all interrelated before you act. This is not about accepting a new job or about embarrassing yourself. This is about growing up quickly. I wish you the best.

Can this new grad grow up quickly and get out of this fix? What would you advise?

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Your Boss Hates You: The politics of CYA

In the January 27, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader is fed up with a boss whose idea of management is bad politics.

Question

mean-bossI work for a failing organization that brought in a new manager to turn things around. The problem is that the new manager has threatened to dismiss me. He clearly hates me. I have never been in this situation before.

Earlier this year I was given a merit raise and was told by my manager’s boss that they were very happy with my work. I’ll be resigning, but how do I insure that this company doesn’t say negative things to a future employer? Should I see a lawyer? How should I handle this in the meantime?

Nick’s Reply

You’re going to have to play politics, because your new manager started the game. Don’t tell yourself that you can’t play because it’s distasteful. This is part of managing your career and work life, so learn to play well. The key is not to go it alone. I’ll offer you some suggestions, but remember that your judgment matters more than mine because you’re in it, and I’m just watching.

First, assess where you really stand.

I’d go talk to your manager’s boss about what’s happened; that is, to the person who told you what a good job you were doing.

How to Say It
“I just got a merit raise and you gave me some nice compliments on my work — this motivated me to work harder and smarter. Now I need your advice. What am I to make of this threat to dismiss me? I want to do the right thing, for the company and for myself. But it’s very distracting to have my new boss threatening me. Can you please advise me?”

You must find out whether you have support, or whether the company will let the new manager toss you aside. It’s hard to say whether the big boss will come to your aid. Managers don’t like to battle with one another, but you must ask for guidance. Hopefully, you’ll get the help you need.

Regardless, you must also take action to protect yourself.

Second, establish a record.

Visit HR and get the facts. What does HR have on file about this matter?

Then create your own record. Start a written log of events (including names, dates, times, conversations), which may be helpful in the event you take legal action. Bring this with you to the HR office, where you can inquire about the problem you’re facing..

How to Say It
“For the record, have any negative reviews or complaints been filed against me? I have not seen a PIP (employee Performance Improvement Plan). Is there one on file?”

When you ask HR these questions, also submit them in written form. HR relies on records; you should, too. It’s part of playing politics well. If your manager is planning to fire you, HR will use a PIP to document your “problem behavior” and the company’s attempt to help you correct it. HR uses the PIP as a kind of CYA action to protect the company legally. It will tip you off to how serious your new manager is about canning you.

If there’s nothing like this on file, then I suggest letting HR know that your manager has threatened you. Bring along a short letter to HR that states what you’re about to say, and include accurate quotations of (a) what your manager’s boss said to praise your work, and (b) what your manager said to threaten you. If you wind up taking legal action, these documents may be helpful. When HR sees this in writing and observes you taking notes, you may not need a lawyer — your manager may need more help than you do.

Then ask HR for help.

How to Say It
“I’d like to ask your advice and help. My manager has threatened to fire me, but his boss recently said XYZ about my work, and I was given a merit raise. So, I’m confused and very concerned. My performance has been praised and rewarded, but now I’m threatened with dismissal, but there’s no warning in your files. Should I be talking with an attorney?”

please-fire-meWhile it’s a bit risky to bring up hiring a lawyer, providing HR with written documents puts HR on notice. Now, HR — if it’s got any integrity at your company — has to take this seriously. (Do you question HR’s integrity? See What’s HR Got to Do With It?) Ask for a response in writing. If HR doesn’t give it to you, log that fact, too. Lawyers love logs. Whether you go to a lawyer is of course up to you. I’m not advocating that, but I want you to be prepared with information a lawyer may need to help you.

While you’re meeting with HR, let HR see that you’re making notes about your conversation — and doing your own CYA. It’s part of playing politics, whether your idea of winning is a lawsuit or merely quitting and moving on.


Coming Next Week: A special edition about how to leave your job.

Did you get fired? About to get downsized? Ready to quit? We’ll discuss how to protect yourself so you can move on — on your own terms! Don’t miss it!


Third, develop options.

Now that you’ve assessed — and let HR know — where you stand, the third part of politics is to get some insurance.

Gather a few written references from managers and co-workers, if you can do it discreetly. If you have a good enough collection, you may not need to include your current manager as a reference when you go job hunting. Other managers will suffice. One negative reference that you can explain as a bad egg may not matter much, as long as you have the support of others who know you well. (For more about this thorny problem, see How can you fight bad references?) You might be surprised at how much support you have when you make your move — even if these same people can’t help you protect your job.

(See Take Care Of Your References.)

Then take this a step farther. Have a friend who is a manager at another company call your current manager, his boss and the HR office, and ask them for references. (Caution: Do not fake this. You need a real manager asking for real references. Never lie. But there’s nothing wrong with playing more politics.) You’ll quickly learn whether they’re torpedoing you. If they are, you may need to talk with an attorney who can put a stop to it.

Just remember that you can’t lead with your references. To be a truly potent job applicant, you must lead with your ability to show an employer how you’re going to contribute to its success. (See Stand Out: How to be the profitable hire.)

Of course, your most important insurance is to line up interviews with other good employers. Even if you take legal action, your best option is a great new job, and the peace of mind that comes with knowing another employer values you and treats you with respect.

I don’t know whether your boss really hates you, but if he’s threatened to fire you, that triggers HR processes, and that’s company politics. If you don’t believe me, you will when you realize that HR’s first job is to protect the employer, not you. So CYA. That means playing politics to protect yourself. Be prepared to fight fire with fire.


HR: Friend Or Foe?

While HR might be very sympathetic and helpful, it can also be your opponent — whether you’re leaving your job or trying to get hired. For more about dealing with HR, see Fearless Job Hunting, Book 4, Overcome Human Resources Obstacles.


Now for my disclaimer: My suggestions can be risky. I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. So use your own judgment and do the best you can.

Have you faced a boss who hates you in spite of your good performance? What did you do to protect yourself? How did it turn out? How would you advise this reader?

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How your old boss can cost you a new job

In the April 15, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader worries about how much “notice time” is enough when quitting a job:

I’m a licensed professional working in a small firm. During lean years a few years ago, my boss arranged for me to do some other work so that he wouldn’t have to lay me off. I even did some dog and house sitting for him. So we are close. Nonetheless, now it’s time for me to move on. I will not consider a counter-offer or any back-and-forth negotiations.

I’ve heard my boss say that if anyone leaves the firm, he’d like a month or two notice. I’ve read your thoughts on this, and I agree a long notice is a bad idea — potentially a trap for being abused during the transition period, and who would wait one or two month’s for a new employee to start work? Frankly, I’m hoping to give two weeks’ notice and to take a third week for vacation between jobs.

When I leave, I’ll do all I can to leave my desk in good shape for my replacement, but the firms I’m interviewing with will want me to start quickly. Is there a good way to go about this?

Nick’s Reply

Your boss’s wishes are one thing. Reality is another. As you’ve clearly realized, your own career safety is paramount, no matter how friendly you feel toward your current employer. Your old boss can cost you your new job.

quittingHere’s the message you need to deliver to your boss when — and only when — you have a bona fide, written job offer in hand and you’ve accepted it and have a firm start date:

How to Say It
I’m afraid i It’s time for me to move on. I’ve accepted a job at a firm where I can continue growing my career in directions that are important to me. I’d like to give you two weeks’ notice. Of course, I will devote that time to helping organize my work to facilitate the transition to someone new – anything you need.”
[Note: I’ve modified this suggestion thanks to a comment from GEM below.]

Stop there. Your boss may not ask for more time. Or, it’s unlikely but I’ve seen it happen, he may ask you to leave immediately. (There’s no guessing at how an employer will react, so plan for the worst.)

If he presses you to stay for more time, try this:

How to Say It
“I wish I could do more, but in today’s economy no company I’ve talked with permits the kind of transition time I’d like to give you. My job offer is contingent on a quick start date.”

Don’t complain and don’t explain in any more detail. Do the right thing within the constraints you have. And let your old employer deal with the rest. Don’t let him turn your business with your new employer into his business. Don’t fool around with requesting an extension on the start date for your new job. The answer might be a withdrawn offer. (Be sure you’re Starting a job on the right foot.)

Again, be prepared to be shown the door immediately if your boss gets upset. (Now I’ll shock you a bit: If you have personal belongings in your desk, get them out before you announce your plans.)

There’s a standard for doing the right thing, and that’s two weeks’ notice. I know it sounds cold, but you don’t owe anyone any more, even if they cut you a break during hard times. If you want to try to return that favor, do it in a way that won’t cause problems at your new job. Offer to recommend a candidate for the job, if you can. Offer to help write the job description and to help interview applicants during your notice period. Offer to work late during those two weeks, if necessary. (The guy did you a solid; do one for him to the extent you can.)

Part friends if you can. And when you get that new job offer, remember that there is no sure thing. I wish you the best.

What do you owe your employer when it’s time to move on? I’m sure you have more ideas and even some personal policies. Should this reader try to extend the start date at a new job?

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