How to Quit Your Job

Posted on Mar 10, 2010 | 187 comments

How to Quit Your Job

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.

  • msuster

    I lived in France for 2.5 years. I took many holidays there even after I moved to the UK. I'm a big fan of France. Just not their employment laws.

    BTW, as an aside. I was fortunate enough to meet the French finance minister in 2001 after the 35 hour / week law was passed restricting employees to working no more than 35 hours (total lunacy). He said the following, which I'll always remember, “I love the 35 hour work week. I love it a lot. I love the 35 hour work week so much that I work two of them every week!” I knew exactly the predicament he was in. I laughed heartily.

  • msuster

    Dan, it is semantics. I suspect if you ever heard me give the speech verbally you'd realize that I never overstep the boundaries. I tell them that this is my suggestion and I try to be helpful. But in the end it's your career and you need to do what you feel comfortable with. Please just promise me you won't give in just for the sake of giving in if you feel “guilted” into staying for an unnecessarily long time.

  • msuster

    I think you're taking my words a bit further than I had intended them to. I try to offer a line of negotiation since I have to deal with this issue more than most people who quit their jobs very seldom. That's all. It's not manipulation – it's negotiation. And I'm just arming them with sound talking points. In the end it's up to them to put the words in their own tone.

  • msuster

    I think that's a stretch, Ken. Just because an employers wants you to join sooner doesn't mean that they're immoral and not willing to be open when your mom dies. That's a slippery slope argument. I don't buy it.

  • msuster

    Agree completely. I have only ever “saved” somebody once. And I didn't regret it. Generally I advise against it.

  • msuster

    I stand by my statement. That doesn't mean there aren't valid reasons people changed jobs – as you say, “bought out, shut down, laid off” and even made some moves. But I think you know what I'm talking about. The person who's had 7 jobs in 12 years. When you interview them and ask why they changed jobs they often answer, “I got headhunted” or “I was offered more money.” In these instances, there is only one valid response, “hasta la vista, baby.”

  • msuster

    Great input, Boris. I appreciate it. All correct.

  • msuster

    BigCo is fine if they have subsequently worked at a startup. Plus, for some roles (like developers) it can be fine straight away. Depends. I prefer people with some startup experience, though.

  • ted

    …to whom you offer a job.

  • msuster

    Yeah, usually in this case people respect the employee. Harder when you want to leave to go to another job!

  • msuster

    You probably do a good job anywhere. But for a startup I prefer not to waste cycles on people who I think are looking to leave. There's too many other talented people out there. BTW, 4 years isn't job hopping. My definition is people who change jobs every 2 years. There are many of these.

  • msuster

    I disagree. Hiring job hoppers at startups is a non starter. Full stop. Definition – somebody who's average tenure is 2 years at most jobs. 4 years isn't “hopping.” 3 depends.

  • msuster

    This might be true with you personally but not my experience. Many people feel guilty leaving and would rather stay longer than cause waves.

  • msuster

    Agree entirely. And I don't think that your previous points are a million miles from my points of view. Thanks for contributing.

  • msuster

    I want to write this. I have it on my list. It's such a sensitive topic that I've been resisting but I promise to cover it some day. I get lots of unpleasant input when I say things that upset people and I know that this topic will be a landmine. Maybe I'll save it for a week when I'm feeling like I have particularly thick skin 😉

  • msuster

    Awesome. And stay tuned for Launchpad announcements soon!

  • msuster

    Ha. Yes, I plan to do a whole series on my experiences in Europe. Maybe later in the year. I have lots of stories / experiences to share.

  • msuster

    Yeah, I wrote the same thing –

  • Boris Epstein

    These are all great points Mark. Another small tip I like to add when advising my candidates on their resignation process is to not disclose the monetary components of their future comp package. This is pure gold and ammunition to the current employer for the extension of a counter-offer. I sometimes even advise them to take it a step further and not disclose the specifics of the company/role they will be joining – this is also a big point of ammunition that counter-offers tend to stem from.

    Another thing I like to do before even going into these tips is to never assume that my candidate doesn't actually want a counter-offer. Sometimes candidates leverage new offers just to get their existing situation improved. So before letting them go in there and resign, I ask them point blank whether they want a counter offer or not. Most people interestingly enough say “no, but I'll gladly listen to anything they have to say”. This is a red flag and needs to be handled before notice is given. You can do this by explaining to the candidate that there are two ways to give notice – one way that will generate a counter offer and one way that doesn't. This is also a good time to question their genuine interest in accepting and actually joining your company. More times than not, this process strengthens the chances of your offer being accepted and along with the other points/tips reduces the liklihood of a counter-offer being taken.

  • Rhatta

    Only one point where we disagree: I've had 8 jobs in 12 years with an average tenure of less than 2 years. 3 of those companies had “.com” in their name circa 1998-2000 and no longer exist. I should get a pass on those. 1 management change that involved moving the company headquarters from SF to NJ. 1 recalled transfer to London where I chose to stay, and 1 necessitated by my move back to the US 2 years later. Only 2 instances where I actually sought and found a new opportunity while currently employed – I give no extra credit to people who go down with a sinking ship.

    I'm probably an exceptional case of either bad luck, bad decisions or both. But no one I've worked for would ever call me a job-hopper.

  • ericabiz

    Fantastic post. I especially love the NLP references (presupposition; anchoring) as these techniques are incredibly useful.

    Do you find that employees who previously worked at “BigCo”s (as you put it) really make good startup employees? Having hired several times in the past, in general, I found that employees who were used to working at big companies generally didn't like the startup environment where someone wasn't around to manage them all the time. I typically hired fresh out of school to avoid the notice problem.

    Curious as to your viewpoint on this.


  • Rhatta

    Have a look at how Netflix answers this question,

    Bottom line: if someone working for you came in today and said they were leaving, what would you offer them to stay. Don’t wait until that day comes and give it to them now. If you aren’t willing to fight to keep them, you need to start the process of terminating them now.

  • msuster

    I get it. Downsizing happens and isn’t always person. I’m just saying that when the manager “has to do his/her duty” they do it and it follows a process. That process doesn’t say, “well, we really like you and know you’re having a hard time at home. So we’re giving you an extra two months to look for work.” When they need to cut they need to cut now. It’s dispassionate. That’s why I’m saying employees shouldn’t feel “guilted” into staying longer. It’s nothing personal. It’s just time to move on.

  • Ivan Matveyev

    Nice post, Mark.

    I would like to add that in Russia 2 week notice is a law for both sides.
    You may always arrange shorter or longer term, if it's ok for you and your employer/employee.

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  • msuster

    OK, fair enough. I DO give a carve out for 1997-2001. And if there was some degree of high change for a while I can live with it if it's balanced with 1-2 placed where they were for 5-6 years to show that there is some loyalty in their toolkit. Yes, each case is different. Still, you end up with a red flag when you change a lot and it's one more hurdle versus other potential employees.

  • msuster
  • Joao Belo

    Great post. I had actually stated I was leaving for my MBA 3-4 months before I actually left (had to do it in order to get references) and, although the environment was a bit more lukewarm afterwards, I think the company's managers understood my decision and I was able to carry on doing good work.

  • Moschop

    ” Job hoppers NEVER make good employees.” Oh come on, play fair. I plan to move on every three or four years, but I like to think I do a good job everywhere I work.

  • -dan

    I agree with idea, and I agree with giving assistance, and I agree that many people might need some guidance in this area. But, there is a difference between suggesting what they might say, and telling them what that should say.
    I know it sounds like semantics but telling someone to basically stonewall their future-ex-employer to avoid confrontation and possibly a bad outcome for yourself comes off as a very controlling request.

    With that said, I also see the flip side, the future ex-employer could be doing their fair share of trying to control the situation for their own benefits. I'd like to believe rising above will make the difference, but reality isn't so easy.

    Like everything else in the world, it's not just the product you're selling, it's the presentation, even if you are the product.

    good topic

  • Sindy

    Your statement 'job-hoppers' never make good employees couldn't be further from the truth. Why would an employee stay in a dead-end job or with companies that cannot provide growth? There are a million reasons why employees might job hop in the course and paths of life…stereotyping is bad business sense.

  • Alex Tingle

    This attitude reflects poorly on you. You encourage your new employee to shirk their contractual obligation to work their notice period. Do you then continue to encourage them to treat third parties dishonourably once they have started to work for you??

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  • mmeehan

    Great post and I agree with you Mark. Whenever you start to qualify their hopping by using excuses like “dead end job” or lack of growth within the company, I start to question their decision making process in the first place. Were they thinking long term when they took the job or were they after a short term salary or title fix? Serial job hoppers are never going to be satisfied and always see the greener pastures.

  • marklanday

    Excellent post. As an executive recruitment professional, I agree with your thoughts. The on-boarding process starts at the beginning of the recruitment process, not as an after thought to avoiding counter offers. It doesn't reflect well to loose good people and sometime buying time is an option for the other company. Another method is early in the process is walking the candidate backwards on the calendar from the press release date to current date.

  • Flash Preloader

    Never came across such a problem as choosing between a good job offer and not that satisfying current position. A hesitation (long transition) might take place only if employee is not very interested in the offer. At least everyone must understand, which job is appealing and what position has more benefits.

  • Youssef Rahoui

    As a French entrepreneur, I can say it is true. And that is not even the whole story. It is incredibly expensive to hire people. If you pay a guy 100 (fully loaded), you still need to pay 70-80 of taxes. It is one of the biggest barrier to success I can imagine.

    It is true that you have a lot of subsidies but they are a incredibly complex and time consuming. I would much rather get no subsidie from anybody and left on my own to build my company but just not get hindered by all those stupid taxes (at least for the 1st year) and paperwork.

  • Robert Hatta

    For better or worse, I've had a lot of experience leaving companies (for all sorts of reasons) over my relatively short career. I've also recruited employees away from other companies on many occasions. That includes experience in the UK, which was rightly mentioned as an area where different rules apply (see: “gardening leave”). However, I've never “hopped” anywhere – figuratively or literally. I won't rip you for this as it's beside the point.

    I agree with all of your comments and they align with my experience on both sides of the fence (table?). I've hired lots of folks where I knew that their manager would try to keep them, either an extended notice period or outright (that's why I hired them). My view has always been “shame on them” for letting a star employ leave and I make that case when giving them the offer. Besides, the type of person you want in your business (which is why you gave them the offer to begin with) will be as quick and effective in bundling-up and transitioning their duties as they will be in picking up the new ones at your company. So I've found 2 weeks to be plenty of time to wrap things up.

    From the former employer perspective, most managers are smart enough to know that, once you've made the decision to leave, you are mentally checked-out and you should go – sooner the better. That way, the organization can move on and there is less time for you to talk to co-workers about why you're leaving. If the candidate is a star (and they'd better be!), it's a huge blow to that company's morale to see you go. Worse if it's a drawn out process.

    Counter offers are acts of desperation. As departing employee, I've never given them consideration and made sure to communicate my excitement for “the next challenge” for which I was leaving. This usually makes it clear that it isn't about money, or anything else that might be offered – cutting them of at the pass. As a manager, I believe in the Netflix approach (…), which says that if someone working for you said that they were going to leave to join another company, what would you offer them to stay? If nothing, you should kindly terminate them now (with generous severance). If you would fight to keep them, give it to them now.

  • Roy Rodenstein

    Using anchoring and presumptive close… very nice Mark. Basically you're letting the employee play Good Cop with their boss, using you/the absentee New Employer as Bad Cop.

    And I am paranoid about the most vulnerable moment after a close right there with you. I have only ever lost a couple of people, when their boss literally offered them a 50% raise and a big promotion on the spot. Invariably those people come back to you 3 months later when they realize it was just a negotiating tactic and they're now even more unhappy at their existing job.

    Of course you were uncharacteristically a “nice guy” in this post… you can lay it on MUCH thicker than that, e.g. the candidate can tell their boss that you have other people you'll bring in if they can't start in a week.

  • Robert Hatta

    It is also worth noting the irony of the “less is more” approach when giving reasons for your departure. The same rule applies when terminating someone. Of course you need to have cause and provide the proper documentation and process. But when actually delivering the news, it's best not to get drawn into specifics. It only opens wounds, introduces emotions (not good), and opens the door to argument.

  • jeffsilbert

    My first post on your blog — how have your portfolio firms particularly in the area of sales scaled their teams. What is the breakdown between social networking/networking vs recruiters(contingency/retained) in terms of % of hires and also track record (looking back in hindsight on performance).

  • msuster

    re: good cop / bad cop – yeah, perhaps I should have explained it that way. That's part of my verbal pitch to employees. Make me the bad guy.

    re: your last paragraph – that's probably a little bit further than I would actually go but I understand the sentiment.

    Thanks for the input.

  • msuster

    Thanks for commenting! It really depends on level. Just recruiting a VP Sales and went through an executive recruiter. Done some contingency search. Done some LinkedIn. All over the place, really. It's so situational.

  • Paul Orlando

    Nice post. Good considerations for doing what's best for both the individual employee and the company they're going to join.

  • Roy Rodenstein

    Yeah you don't want to use scare tactics, just an example that when quitting your job sometimes you need to be armed with a reason. The boss very likely may ask “well, why do they need you in 2 weeks. It won't kill them to wait another couple of weeks, they're no more important than we are” etc.

  • Laurent Boncenne

    Is there a lot of French viewership here anyway ? I'd say 95% (you know it's a lot more than 73,6% here 😛 ) of us can't speak english decently, How many would even bother to read an english-speaking blog ? (i'm interested in knowing, seriously)

    I've sadly seen too many times lay offs in the same company being handled like garbage.
    From the company I know that has been doing so, each time, I told myself it was the reason why I should take the risk of starting a company myself.
    Once, I saw them fire an employee asking her and her 2 coworkers which one of them was more eligible to being fired ! Now they're firing the best of their project manager for stupid reasons (we need to make more money, and by reducing our employees, we will make more money).

    A lot of time, I hear owners (and CEO's here) talk about how they run their business here, most of the time I feel shocked that they don't realize they're killing themselves by doing so.

    I see people fear of leaving an overly-underpaid job and the reason for it is just that no matter what, it's going to be the same in every other company they apply to.
    France does need a makeover, and I don't think any of your french readers such a me would feel offended.
    That said, I wish there was more blogs like yours or freds' that would cover other countries…
    As long as you don't criticize our love for frog legs (I hope you tried it though), you've got nothing to fear 😉 Not from me anyway.

  • Anonymous

    Have you written or can you write a post about the best way to fire an early employee (not a founder) at a startup? The employee in this example is someone who is not “punching above their weight” as you expected.

  • Alex Knight

    Great article Mark. My only gripe with your article is I wished you ran spell check on it before you posted :)

  • Mickipedia

    Your timing couldn't have been better on this one. Thanks, Mark!

  • willlytle

    I know you are focused on the US these days, but I'd like to hear more about your experiences in Europe. Throw us Americans in Europe a couple of bones.