How to Quit Your Job

Posted on Mar 10, 2010 | 187 comments


quit jobFile this under entrepreneurial advice

I know that this will sound like a random post topic for startup advice but I promise it’s relevant.  You actually need to give advice to nearly every employee whom you offer a job to on how to best quit their job.  This is important to improve conversion rates of accepted offers / joiners, shorten the time-to-join ratio and the improve the ability of that employee to maintaing good relations with their former employer.

When I started blogging I had an idea.  I would take all of the one-on-one conversations that I have with entrepreneurs from the things I’ve learned and just write them up for anybody to read.  This is advice that I end up giving ALL THE TIME and every CEO of a company I’m involved with will have heard this from me. (also, please remember my disclaimer – I’m not a lawyer)

You just made an offer to a new employee to join your company.  It might be a VP of Sales, Marketing or Technology.  Or it may just be a junior programmer, sales rep or accountant.  The reality is the same.  In a startup you want them to join immediately.  Tomorrow if possible.

Yet they of course need to serve notice.  There is always some version of the following scenario:

- they’ve worked at their employer for 3-4 years

- they really like their boss

- they don’t want to leave on bad terms

- their boss asks them to just work 4-6 weeks so he / she isn’t left in a bad position

- better yet, they’ve said,  “help me understand what we could improve so you’d be happier staying”

Should you just let them deal with this themselves? No, of course not!  You’re an entrepreneur – you’re allowed to be a bit of a control freak.  I leave nothing to chance.  Left to their own devices most employees will muck up their exit.  Why?  They quit jobs very seldom (hopefully, otherwise, please reconsider whether you really want to hire them.  Job hoppers NEVER make good employees.  Kind of obvious even though many people overlook this).  Yet if your company is growing you deal with people quitting their employers to join you all the time.  So you have more experience in helping to manage the process.

I operate on the principle that you’re most vulnerable in any deal immediately after you’ve won.  I believe the same is true in recruiting.  So your goal is to get the employee working in your company as quickly as possible and with the least amount of collateral damage.

How do you deal with the time pressure issues? Sales people are normally tossed out the door when they quit their jobs.  So that one is usually easiest.  But for all other roles it can be tough.  Employees who are about to join you get “guilted” into sticking around longer than is necessary.  My argument to the incoming employee was always, “look, BigCo is never really going to miss you materially once you’re gone – it just feels like that.  They’re going to pressure you into staying longer than you should. Don’t.  Trust me, if they were doing layoffs they wouldn’t keep you an extra month just to be nice.  They key is to be very professional and courteous on the way out.  Then you’ll be fine.  And we really, really need you in two weeks so please do your best not to get suckered into extra time.”

I had a tactic of writing out the line of reasoning for the employee so they knew what to say. The follow are the employees talking points

- I’ve been offered a role in a new startup that is an exciting new opportunity for me. It’s a lot of responsibility and has fantastic upside.  I’m really excited.

- So unfortunately I’m going to turn in my notice

- They’re pressuring me to start next week (this is called “anchoring” (setting short time frames)) but I obviously told them that it would be unfair to give you less than 2 weeks’ notice. So I just want to confirm with you that you want me to stay the full two weeks ( a “presumptive close” (which makes it sound like, “of course this is the normal sequence of events. I’m just confirming what I’m sure you’ll agree.))

Employer: “Gosh, this is a really crucial time. I really need you to stay for 4-6 weeks if we’re to hit our deadlines.” (invariably this is always their position).

- I understand why you’d feel that way and I’d love to help. But it’s super important to me that I don’t lose this opportunity and I’m 100% sure I’m going to eventually join. So I’d really like to work with you to minimize any pain for you. I can take those two weeks (again, anchoring and presumtive close) and really do a thorough transition to anybody you’d like. I’m happy to put in evenings and weekends to make this transition smooth. Please let me know how to best help. I know that my new company is being unfair in asking for a week so I’ve pushed for a full two weeks.

Me to future employee, “I know that they’re going to put the pressure on. You need to be resolute. Professional, polite, helpful and hard-working. But resolute. They’re going to try and get you to work longer. They might even try to convince you to stay. In reality they’ll get over your leaving. But we REALLY need you now.”

Why am I such a control freak about this? Noting good has ever come out of a potential employee staying longer at their previous company.  It’s more time that they can be flipped into staying.  They’re always guilted into staying longer than they should.  In this scenario – I lose.  Thus, I try to leave nothing to chance.

How should they talk to their boss about why they’re leaving?  The most common mistakes people make is telling their employer why they were unhappy.  This accomplishes nothing.

Only two outcomes – 1) they’re bitter about the things you told them needed to improve.  Let’s face it – they’ll never improve.  And they’ll invent that history that you were the bad guy for complaining.  Seem it happen – I promise.  No matter how hard they push in the exit interview don’t offer up the dirt.

2) They use what you’re unhappy about as a means to convince you to stay.  “Oh, you didn’t have enough leadership opportunities?  We’ll put you in charge of this 10-person tech department.  I always remind employees, “if they really cared about your progression they would have done that proactively.  If they’re doing it now it’s only because they feel they have a gun to their head.  If you weren’t happy before this superficial change is only window dressing. They’re just rolling out the red carpet for you when you’re on the way out the door. If they were like this before what are they going to be like for the next few years of your job.

So my script for employees is to say, “I’m leaving for personal reasons.  I loved my time at YourCo.  I learned so much.  I grew.  I build fantastic friends and I’ll always be part of the alumni club.  But it was just time for me to move on to another opportunity.  It wasn’t YourCo.  It was me.  I was ready for the change.”  My main message is to:

- say you’re leaving for “personal reasons” and no matter how hard you’re pressed don’t give in and expound.  It’s just personal reasons.  Nobody can argue with this.  Nobody can offer you a better role to improve “personal reasons”- when asked what this really means just avoid answering.  “You know, I was really happy here.  I just have some personal reasons why it’s time for a change.  NewCo seems like a great opportunity for me.”

Summary Recruiting is a very time-consuming and expensive exercise.  Most people put in herculean efforts into the process until the time of the offer being accepted.  And then they leave the rest to fate.  You enter a risky period after they’ve accepted.  You need to get them in your doors as quickly as possible.  There’s nothing worse than losing an employee that said yes but never joined.

One last hack For executive-level hires I like to get a press release written and work with the incoming employee on the wording and importantly timing of the release.  I like to discuss with them a timeline for announcement for 2 reasons: 1) it starts to build in emotional commitment and 2) you get a chance to test their resolve to joining.  You can always tell the person that is not persuaded when they’re not engaged in the press release process.  If they’re not engaged you can: 1) spend more effort making sure they’re bought in or 2) keep more back-up candidates warm.

UPDATE: Thanks to a well placed question by Jason Wolfe, I’ve added some comments below about the UK, Germany and France and how those employment situations differ.  I know that in the entertainment industry in the US things work differently (long term contracts).  If anybody has any experiences on foreign employment issues or US issues in entertainment or otherwise please feel free to add in the comments.

  • http://www.whatihearyousayingis.com/ Blake

    That is a great point. I have a personal philosophy of no counter-offers (taken or given) and I generally share this with folks on my team early in their employment. As a manager, it keeps me on my toes to extend my best folks a tempered version of the Netflix approach described above — and as an employee it sharpens my resolve to commit to an exit when it's time to move on.

  • http://www.mercabusca.com Empresas

    Actually, I've personally witnessed two incidents where BigCo kept an employee an extra month to aid transitioning. Perhaps it is more of the norm here in Israel.