How to Quit Your Job With Your Dignity and Career Intact

I’m going to sound like your mother for saying this, but you probably shouldn’t quit your job in a blaze of glory.

Blazes of glory don’t buy you groceries two weeks later when radio programs have stopped wanting to have you on the air via telephone and your internet fame has been eclipsed by a video of a zoo animal using a Blackberry. (Remember all those babies dancing to “Single Ladies”? So 2008. Being a meme is not a career path).

It was, of course, the inflatable-slide-based departure of Steven Slater from his job as a JetBlue flight attendant that prompted this column. Opinions are mixed: is he a working-class hero or an “unstable diva”? He will certainly never work as a flight attendant again; as he’s been charged with felonies, he may have a hard time working in many industries. (See previous column: Not all publicity is good publicity). Remember the guy in Office Space? He ends up working on a construction site, which is not an option for everyone.

Need to quit your job? Obviously, it would be good to have another offer in place, or to have been maintaining a low-level entrepreneurial presence (a few freelance clients, some consulting) on the side during your stint in the straight world. (I wrote about this topic in the column How Business Is Like Dating: if you’re already unemployed, you’re simply not as desirable as if you’re someone else’s woman/employee who could conceivably be stolen away). But especially if you’re young, haven’t settled on a single career, want to see the world, etc., plenty of resume gaps are explainable, forgivable, and can be spun into something that makes you look more awesome than all the 9-to-5 drones around you. So, if you think your job just might pound the last ounce of joy out of the overkneaded bread dough of your soul, here are some ideas.

Make a plan for what you’re going to do after you quit, even if that plan involves taking a couple weeks off to drink beer at noon, absconding to Berlin, etc.
If your plan involves some odd jobs like dogwalking, offering yourself on Craigslist as an assistant, babysitting, etc., keep in mind that these, too, take planning — lots of people consider these things their primary occupation and have professional websites, referral systems, etc. in place. The economy is a bit gloomy; there are MBAs out there walking dogs with ruthless efficiency.

Much of the value of making a plan is to keep you sane during the last few weeks of your horrible job, allowing you to eke out another couple of paychecks for your Berlin fund. Apparently, it’s easy to be a broke expat in Berlin (and you don’t particularly have to speak German). Buenos Aires is also a good option for living well while stretching out a meager savings. One friend said that $2,000 and a tourist visa made him feel like a rich man in India for months. So, make a plan, any plan, and allow office politics to recede into the distance while you imagine how far today’s pay will go when you’re in Argentina or Chennai, or at Mom and Dad’s, or in a communal living situation in Bushwick.

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.

originally published on The Gloss