Over the first 16 years of my career I worked for 9 different companies. One company was acquired, and the new company went bankrupt. Another company had me on a rolling contract, which eventually ended when they outsourced the role. For all the other companies I worked for I resigned from my job. The reasons varied, but in each case my resigning was the right career move for me.
You could say that I was pretty good at resigning from jobs. It became an easy process for me. So I sometimes forget that others don’t really know how to quit a job. Especially those who are quitting the first job they received out of school.
Resigning is difficult from an emotional and psychological point of view. It’s easy to second guess yourself. Are you leaving for the right reasons? Is there something else you should do to try and make the job work out? If you’ve accepted a new job, what if that job turns out to be worse than the one you’re leaving? Are you letting people down by leaving? Should you consider counter-offers to stay?
From a process perspective, it can also seem quite confusing. Who do you resign to? Do you do it in person, or in writing? Is it too soon to leave this job? Should you find another job first? How much notice should you give?
Let’s cover the emotional and psychological parts first. These present the biggest hurdle to successfully quitting a job, because they are the most likely to undermine you and cause you to change your mind.
The Mental Challenge of Quitting a Job
First, you should never quit out of anger or frustration. If you are upset then you should go home and think about the situation. Talk it over with your partner, a mentor, or a trusted friend.
Ideally this person will ask you the right questions to challenge your desire to quit. They aren’t there to nod their head and agree with you no matter what, and they aren’t there to talk you out of it. What you will benefit from is another perspective, and an objective view of the situation.
Sleep on it. If you still feel strongly about quitting in the morning, it’s likely that you’ve made the right decision.
If you’re worried that you are going to let someone down – your manager, your team mates, your customers – I’m here to tell you that you won’t. Sure, some of them will be disappointed. Losing a good team member hurts a little. Hiring new people is expensive and frustrating at times. But those who care about you will be genuinely happy for you, knowing that you’re making the right move for yourself.
And remember, this is a business. You’re in the business of you. Your job is to make the best decision for yourself. If you leaving means your former team mates need to work a bit harder while they hire your replacement, it’s not going to kill them. If they want to hold a grudge because you left and they got stuck doing your old work, perhaps their real problems is that they don’t want to work there either and they resent you for having the guts to leave.
All of us are replaceable. Don’t take that the wrong way. It’s not an insult. Everyone is replaceable. Life will go on without you.
When is it Okay to Quit a Job?
You can quit a job at any time. There’s no minimum period of employment where it becomes acceptable to quit. If a job isn’t working out in the first few weeks, you can quit as long as you have a valid reason.
My shortest stint with a single company was 3 months. I took the job in good faith, intending to stay there for quite some time as they had a genuinely good corporate culture and work-life balance. In the first two weeks they announced a break up of the company into two smaller companies. Faced with the proposition of my job shrinking from managing 500 systems to less than 100, I decided to look elsewhere.
When you’re interviewing for new jobs they will ask you why you are looking for a new job so quickly. The answer is simple.
The position is different than what was described in the interview/has changed since I started working there. It's heading in a direction that doesn't interest me, so I’ve decided to look for new opportunities.
A lot of situations are covered by that simple statement, and you can turn the conversation to the new role that you’re interviewing for.
I’m more interested in working with [insert attractive technology here], and this job offers that opportunity, so I submitted my application.
There are things that frustrate people that aren't worth quitting over. Being given a boring task in your first week at a new job is normal. I wouldn't quit over that. Being yelled at for making a mistake the first time you try to follow a new process is not normal. I would give serious consideration to quitting if I found myself in that situation.
Toxic workplaces are adept at making you feel like good times are just around the corner. That maybe you're the problem, not them. That things will get better if you just work a little harder. I’ve seen friends hired into teams that turned out to be toxic messes of narcissism and ego, who then stuck it out for months hoping things would improve. They never did.
Nobody that I know has regretted leaving a job that was making them unhappy. If you aren't happy in a role for whatever reason, and you find something better out there, go for it.
Quitting Without a New Job Offer
Experienced people will tell you that you should not quit your job until you've secured a new job. If you quit without that new job lined up there’s a risk that you’ll have trouble finding another job, creating an ever-growing gap in your employment history that you need to explain in job interviews. It also puts you under pressure to accept the first job that you’re offered, which might not be any better than the job you just quit.
A good general rule is to save up an emergency fund to get you through periods of unemployment. The primary use case for your emergency fund is unplanned unemployment, such as being fired, or your employer going bankrupt.
A secondary use case is so that you can quit a job without first finding your next job. As I've already written, that’s not something I would usually recommend, but in extreme cases of stress, burnout, and toxic workplaces it might be necessary. So at least you'll have that financial cushion to get you through to your next gig.
The Process of Quitting a Job
The process of quitting is simple. If your company has a HR department you can just ask them if there’s a formal procedure you need to follow. Usually there isn’t, and a simple email to your immediate supervisor is enough to start the process. If you get alone with your supervisor have a conversation with them first and explain that you're resigning, rather than just surprise them with an email.
“To whom it may concern, I hereby resign from my position as Systems Administrator for [Company Name]. Per the terms of my employment agreement, I am providing 4 weeks notice, with my final day of employment to be [insert date here].”
I don’t add reasons and feelings to my resignation letters, but that’s a personal choice for you to make. If I have want to explain my feelings I'll do so face to face with my boss when I'm letting them know I'm about to resign. The formal letter/email is only intended to trigger the exit process, not explain the reasons behind the decision. I do recommend you keep it short and simple. If you want to make a positive statement about your time with the company, you could write:
“I have enjoyed my time at [Company Name] and greatly appreciate the opportunities that have been provided to me.”
That’s it. No need to elaborate on the details, air your grievances, or mention where you’re going next. That’s frankly none of their business. You don’t need to write a long email about salary, working conditions, team mates, your boss, or any other factor that came into your final decision.
How Much Notice to Give
The 4 weeks of notice in my example above is typical for Australia. A notice period is written in to most employment contracts. The actual notice period could be shorter or longer. Some people quit a job and give notice, but due to company policies (or emotional reasons by your former boss) are removed from the premises that day. The notice period becomes a paid vacation instead.
In senior roles it is sometimes necessary to provide a longer notice period. This should already be in your employment agreement. But if it isn’t, and you feel like you’re a critical person in an important role or project, you should consider discussing it with your boss first. That’s assuming you are leaving on good terms, and you have a new job that is willing to wait for you.
As I've learned in recent years, Australia has different employment conditions to the USA. In the USA it seems far more common for people to quit without notice, and in return, people can also be fired without notice. Giving a longer notice period seems to be optional, and based more on how good your relationship with your soon-to-be-former boss is. In that case, give as much notice as you feel is appropriate for the relationship you have.
Should You Consider Counter-offers?
Your employer might make a counter-offer to try and get you to stay. They might offer you more money, a new job title, or offer to fix whatever problems have led you to resign in the first place. I have two problems with counter-offers.
- More money doesn’t solve whatever problems led to your decision to resign. In fact, the company probably won’t do anything else to solve those problems, and will just hope you stick with them for a while longer if they pay you more money.
- Since you’ve already accepted a new job somewhere else before you resigned (at least, I hope you have), you would need to renege on the contract you signed with the new employer. This is a bad move that could harm your chances of working with that company in the future. Furthermore, if a friend referred you to the new job opportunity, your decision to pull out after signing a contract will make them look bad as well.
Don’t treat a resignation as leverage in a negotiation. You should not threaten to resign if you don’t get what you want. If you’ve come to the point where you’re willing to resign, negotiations are already over. It’s time to walk away entirely.
Handling Exit Interviews
In many companies it is standard procedure for the HR department to perform an exit interview with departing staff members. Exit interviews usually consist of a series of softball questions designed to extract certain answers from you and check for potential legal issues.
The HR department is not the least bit interested in your gripes with your former manager or team mates. This is not an opportunity to fire a few shots to try and damage someone else’s career as you head out the door. Seriously, they don’t care. And anything you say can be dismissed as the rantings of a “troublemaker” who “wasn’t a good fit” anyway.
When they ask you, “Why are you leaving?”, they don’t want to hear “My manager is incompetent, and has no idea how to run a technical team.” Save it for the bar later with your mates.
So what you should you say instead? Here’s a few examples.
Q: Why are you leaving your current position?
As tempting as it is to blast your former manager, or your annoying team mates, focus on the benefits of your new position.
A: I was offered the opportunity to work with some new technologies that aren’t on the roadmap here at Globomantics. It’s a direction that I want to move in with my career, so I decided to take up the offer.
You should go in to the exit interview prepared to give a few examples of things you did like about working for the company. I assume at some stage you were happy there, even if that only lasted a few weeks.
Q: What did you like most about your job?
You can give a simple answer about something that you achieved, no matter how big or small it was. Remember, you’re leaving the company, not applying for a job there. You’re under no pressure to impress them with your accomplishments as you walk out the door.
A: I’m proud of the work I did on the Big Project to upgrade the Important System.
Any questions about things you didn’t like should be approached with caution.
Q: What did you dislike most about your job?
Your instincts here will tell you to complain about the pay, or the hours, or the 10 year old IT equipment that is barely staying alive. Even if the HR person believes what you say, they are not likely to be in a position to do anything about it. Again, use something good about your new role to highlight any issues you had.
A: The long hours were putting a strain on my family life. My new role has a fixed on call roster so that I will only be doing after hours work one week per month.
Sometimes they will ask an open question to draw out any other issues.
Q: Is there anything else we could have done to keep you from leaving?
If you want to tell them that a pay rise or better working conditions would have made you happy, by all means do so. But deliver the message in a way that shows you made good faith attempts to get those things.
A: I spoke to my manager about increasing my salary to a more competitive rate for this market, which would have helped me with the increase in our cost of living over the last few years. He said there was no budget for pay rises, so that’s when I began looking for other opportunities.
When I resigned from one of my former employers I ended up in an exit interview with a particularly aggressive HR officer. They seemed intent to get a specific answer out of me, and kept pressing me on the question of why I was leaving. Eventually I had to say:
There’s really no single reason for me leaving. Sometimes we just need a change in life. This is one of those times. I can't say any more than that.
What to Tell Your Colleagues?
When you quit a job, you’re going to get asked questions by your colleagues.
Why did you quit?
Where are you going?
Can I come with you?
It can be uncomfortable if you don’t want to share too much information, particularly if you’re joining a competitor. This is a private matter for you, and you should feel free to answer with as much or as little information as you want. Even if you’re discussing it with people you consider to be your friends, workplace gossip spreads fast. People can become resentful, and I feel it's better to be out the door before any such problems arise.
I treat these questions a lot like the HR exit interview.
Q: Why are you leaving?
A: I got an offer to work with Technology X, which I’ve been interested in for a while. It’s a bit closer to home and they offered a bit more money so I decided to go for it.
Q: Where are you going?
A: I’d rather not say right now, but if you check my LinkedIn profile in a couple of weeks you’ll see it.
Don’t get me wrong. If you want to proudly announce that you’ve been hired by Google, or Microsoft, or FaceBook, by all means do so. Just don’t feel pressured to reveal more than you want to.
Preparing for Your Last Day
As you approach your last day there are usually some other tasks to close off your employment. I recommend you pack up your personal belongings and take them home with you a few days before your last day.
If you think your resignation is going to have you marched out the door immediately, start taking your personal belongings home a few days beforehand so all that’s left is a few essentials to pack up. After you’ve resigned, have another team member observe you while you pack up so there’s no accusations of theft.
Don’t delete work emails or files. Those are company property, and should be left for your former employer to do whatever they need to do for compliance purposes. If you have any work in progress, drafts, notes, or anything else that will be useful to your team mates, hand those over. You should also write out a list of any ongoing projects that someone else will need to take responsibility for, and hand those over as well.
On your last day, hand in any remaining company property, and then you’re all finished.
Don't Look Back
Once you’ve left the company, you owe them nothing. Harsh as that sounds, your full attention should now be given to your new job and to maintaining the quality of your life.
In some circumstances, a former employer will contact you to ask you for information or assistance. Maybe they’ve forgotten why a system was implemented the way it was, or something has broken and they can’t get it working.
Some IT pros will tell you that this is an opportunity to make a little side income by billing your former employer for your time. This is true, in some cases. For me, it’s not worth the time or the paperwork, not to mention the possible insurance problems it creates. I value my free time more than any amount of money a former employer would be willing to pay me.
If it’s a good friend calling, then of course I’ll help them. But I’m not personally in the habit of helping out every former employer, paid or free. I'd rather do something fun and fulfilling instead.
You can make a judgement call for yourself, and it will be obvious to you where that line exists for good friends you’re willing to help out regardless of the circumstances.
Was it the Right Choice?
Some people quit jobs and regret it later. It happens, no big deal. If you handled everything the right way, you can always go back. I've worked with plenty of people who left a company for a while and then returned later in a different role. Often the time away is good for their development, both professional and personal.
Sometimes you quit a job and the new job sucks. It happens, no big deal. You can just keep looking for a new job elsewhere. Remember, there's no minimum requirement for time served before you can resign.
There's no real risk of being seen as a “job hopper” if you make a few moves before you find the right job. As long as you have valid reasons for each decision, interviewers won't focus on it. I certainly wouldn't let it keep me from applying to new jobs. Never reject yourself from opportunities.
Did I Miss Anything?
We've all got stories about times we quit, and the reasons why. Or times that we should have quit, but didn't for some reason.
Do you have a story to share, or a question about quitting? Leave a comment below to let me know.