Bullish Q&A: When to Break Up With Your Job


I cannot emphasize enough that the only constant in life is change.

It’s a cliche, to be sure. So is the idea that women are all about finding “security,” be it financial or romantic.

But “security” is relative, at best. Even if you pledge to spend the rest of your life with someone, one of you is going to die first. Even if you have a very nice place to live, there are kinds of natural disasters you can’t even buy insurance for. If you are an employee, with all your advancement pinned on one job, it is only a matter of time before your manager moves on, you are transferred to some new manager, conditions become unbearable, your job disappears entirely, or — good times ahead — the opposite of one those things happens.

In Bullish: Responding to Disappointment with Awesomeness, I wrote about replacing fear of change with excitement. The way to do this is to have plans in your back pocket that are mutually exclusive with what you’re doing now. For employees, this requires extreme comfort with job hunting and job hopping, and the social skills to keep networks intact while doing it.

Here’s a question about when to break up with a job.

I have a question that I hope you might be able to help me with. I read your columns all the time and think your brand of super clever advice might be what I need here. I can’t see the wood for the trees at the moment.

I recently left a good job in a [bonsai horticulture] agency in London to take another job in another [bonsai horticulture] agency. The new one approached me and we went through a process of 6 interviews before I agreed to join them. I’m one step below director level so managed a team and did high value work which I loved in my old role. I thought I was being hired to do the same in the new place. My only reason for leaving was that I thought the process of transferring my skills and working with a new team/clients would help me grow professionally. I’ve been given a good pay rise (£15k) but have the same job title.

Turns out, my expectations of the role are different to what they had seen me doing. I may or may not have been hired against the wrong job profile: the one I got given during interview is not the one HR hold certainly but I can’t tell what’s happened. Also, my new bosses seem not to understand my experience and skill set which makes me wonder if they looked at my CV or listened in the interviews. When I asked politely about the discrepancy and what their plans for me were, they looked very confused and seemed to have no answer. I’ve had a few more weird conversations full of leading questions and am more confused than ever. I’m worried that trying to resolve it further will mean I will start to sound pushy or arrogant. I’m conscious that they don’t know me well so won’t fully trust me yet.

I know that these kind of kinks are what probation periods are meant to help you resolve but I can’t help feeling I’ve made a mistake and it’s constantly on my mind. I feel like they don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to settling and working with senior people and that my experience was something they were unaware of. I have a hunch that I make my new boss uncomfortable as we’re actually very close in terms of level. He’s definitely not made himself available to orientate me and after the initial rush of enthusiasm they had when trying to hire me, I’m left feeling shut out. Most of all, I just want to work hard and be allowed to do the kind of work I did before.

The question is: shall I just grin and bear it for the next two months until the end of my probation or should I keep trying to work out what my remit is meant to be? I’ve never disliked work or had Sunday night work fear but I do now and my days are miserable. Even though I get paid a lot now (£70,000), being unhappy is not worth it for that. I don’t think I would have a problem getting another job if I had to, but don’t know how long to give it before deciding what to do. What would you do?

Hmmn, what an interesting problem. Congratulations, at least, on negotiating yourself a hefty raise! (See Bullish: How to Ask for More Money Part I and Part II.)

Let’s look at the positives: If you start looking for another job, you can truthfully list £70,000 rather than £55,000 on your salary history, which, quite frankly, is a huge deal. I know that money isn’t your primary motivation — you’re much more concerned in this letter with professional growth and enjoying your work — but £15,000 more at this stage of your life could mean £1M more over the course of your career if you get pay raises based off that £70,000 and if you’re investing wisely. So, well done!

That said, wow. It doesn’t sound like a single competent thing has happened anywhere in your hiring and orientation process. You appear to have no real allies at this place. It’s kind of weird that they hired you and gave you a big raise, since they have no idea what you actually do for a living.

What are the advantages of staying and trying to work this out? I don’t think there are many, but let’s brainstorm. Maybe you could craft some new and interesting role for yourself. Maybe you could really impress everyone, since the expectations for you seem to be way too low. What else? Make a list.

You say, though, that it wouldn’t be too hard to get a new job. That’s good.

If getting hired elsewhere seems to be the solution, would it be better to do that now, within your probationary period, or after you’ve given the job a good six months or a year? I think now might really be better. If you call it quits now, well … that’s what probationary periods are for, right? If you wait a year, that’s enough time to fail. Not due to any fault of your own, but when you have no idea what the expectations are and you don’t have a team to manage like you expected, well … how can you succeed? And if you’re not succeeding, you’re failing; neutral doesn’t cut it.

I had a friend who married someone and got divorced just weeks later. She was embarrassed to have to tell people, but when she did, people responded with all kinds of stories about how they wished they had gotten divorced right after the wedding, instead of years later, after way too much misery.

If you’re going to look for another job, try really, really hard to find one person in your current company who will be your ally and serve as a reference.

How do you make allies? Once, feeling left out of an office culture, I brought in home-baked cookies. Because I was already left out of the office culture, no one ate them. Seriously. I took the whole plate of cookies home that night. I might have eaten them myself, sadly. Fake expressions of friendship are no good. But allies don’t have to be friends. One way to make allies is to be genuinely intellectually interested in your profession and to find other people who are as well. Grab lunch with these people; forward interesting articles chock full of technical, quantitative details. Find out what they’re working on, ask questions, show interest, and act as a consultant if asked. Sign up to attend a networking event or seminar in your field, and ask your new colleagues if they’re going. Encourage them to come with you.

I think the most stylish and gentlewomanly way to deal with your situation — not that this is necessarily even possible, but here is an ideal — would be to cheerfully do the duties assigned to you (for a short while), while making friends and allies, keeping up discussions with your superiors and with HR, and being open about your wanting a good fit and wanting the company to be well-served. Be open about the probationary period being a time for both parties to make decisions. After all, you don’t want to take the company’s money if it isn’t going to be a win-win. And then look for a new job in a way that allows you to keep your old network and possibly make connections among people you’re working with now and people you’ll end up working with, if the companies aren’t direct competitors. This whole trial period is like one of those dates where it’s not a match, but it’s all very cordial and you keep in touch and maybe even end up setting each other up on dates with friends.

(Also, check out this article about resigning well.)

Overall, keep in mind that you haven’t done anything wrong. So don’t act sneaky, as though you have. (See Bullish Life: What Do You Feel Guilty About Today?) A probationary period is a decision period for both parties.

Good luck!