Everyone has bad days at work or even long periods when they feel disheartened about their job. But how do you know the difference between ordinary, occasional dissatisfaction and a genuine mismatch? How do you know when you're truly ready to move on? And how do you then get out gracefully?
What the Experts Say
Quitting a job can negatively impact your career and disrupt your personal life. But staying in an undesirable situation can be worse. "I find a lot of people paralyzed by their unhappiness with their current reality," says Leonard Schlesinger, the president of Babson College and coauthor of Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future. It's often easier to stay put. "Most people stay too long in bad jobs because the corporate world is geared towards keeping us in roles, not matching individuals up with their ideal roles," says Daniel Gulati, a tech entrepreneur and coauthor of Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders. But don't let yourself get stuck. Here's how to decide whether it's really time to quit, and if so, how to leave effectively:
Watch for signals
Start by figuring out whether you lack excitement about the bigger picture or the day-to-day activities. "When people ask me how things are going, my standard response is that I love what I'm doing, which doesn't mean that I like it on any given day," says Schlesinger. Here are some signs that something larger is going on:
- You keep promising yourself you'll quit but never do. Gulati says that these false starts are often indicative of an underlying problem.
- You don't want your boss's job. If you can't stand the idea of having your manager's job, you need to think hard about what's next. Chances are that "your hungrier peers will soon pass you, creating more job dissatisfaction," says Gulati.
- You're consistently underperforming . If you keep trying to get better but you're not seeing results, it may be time to consider whether you have what it takes, or if your boss and colleagues value what you have to offer. Schlesinger warns that sometimes you're up against an impossible task — the job is too big, the politics are too tricky, there aren't enough resources, or you don't have the required skills and experience.
If you notice one or more of these signs, pay attention and ask yourself whether the costs of staying in the job are reasonable and acceptable to you. It may be that the "price of admission" — opportunity loss, emotional toll — aren't worth it.
Test the waters
To further explore if you're ready to leave, run a few experiments to assess whether your perception is reality. "It's better to rely on information gathered from live interaction with people rather than spinning around in your own chair," says Schlesinger. He suggests having an honest conversation with your boss about how you're perceived and what you're capable of achieving in your role. If you think your manager wouldn't be open to that kind of discussion, Gulati advises looking at your last two annual performance reviews. "Do the comments make you feel empowered or disheartened? If your performance is stagnating despite your best efforts, you might want to quit before further reputational damage is done," he says. You can also test whether there's a mismatch by putting your hat in the ring the next time your boss has a high-profile piece of work to be done. If you're overlooked, it may be that he doesn't appreciate your skills and it's time to move on.
Know the risks
Before making a final decision, make sure you've assessed the downsides. Even if you're certain you're in the wrong job, there are risks to leaving — you may damage existing relationships, lose needed income, or blemish your resume. According to Gulati, people usually get ten chances to quit a job in their lifetime, which works out to an average of every four years. "If you're changing things up much more than that, companies will start looking at you as a serial job-hopper," he says. This will hurt your professional reputation and your chances of getting jobs in the future. "This could become especially problematic if you find a role you really want but can't get a foot in the door because of your dicey resume," says Gulati.
Always leave toward something
You can mitigate some of the risks by deciding what's next before you leave. Both experts agree that it's better to have at least an inkling of what you want to do, if not a full-fledged plan. "People should quit to secure a positive role, not on an emotional whim to avoid a negative situation. If you truly hate what you're doing, you should absolutely leave but not before you identify something that you have a good chance of loving in the future," says Gulati. Scheslinger adds "I wouldn't leave without some sort of plan, whether it's a set of experiments to confirm what you're excited about doing next or a conscious strategy to make something happen." Of course, that's not always possible. "Many people leave it open ended, especially if they're financially secure or craving an uninterrupted period of introspection," says Gulati.
Don't run out the door
You may fantasize about telling your boss to take this job and shove it, but that will only give you short-term relief and could possibly ruin your professional life. "There's nothing worse than taking a bad situation and leaving it badly. How you leave is as important as how you arrive," says Schlesinger. Discuss the decision with people who matter in your life: spouse, children, friends. Ask mentors or former bosses for advice. Most importantly, Schlesinger recommends, "Look at it from your boss's point of view and think about how you can communicate a process for disengagement that is respectful of the situation." Gulati agrees: "Once you've decided to quit and have a last day in mind, you should let your immediate supervisor know and follow due process."
Principles to Remember
- Ask yourself whether the job can be done, whether you can do it, and if the costs of doing it are too high
- Run short experiments to test whether your current situation is unfixable
- Have some sense of what you want to do next before you quit
- Stay if you don't want the job your boss or another superior is doing — you need to have a vision of what will come next
- Burn bridges no matter how dissatisfied you are — it could ruin your professional reputation
- Make quitting a habit — you'll blemish your resume
Case Study #1: Weigh the costs of staying
Adam Park (not his real name) joined Goldman Sachs' Hong Kong office in early 2007 as an associate in their equity derivatives division. Adam loved his job and was having the experience he had hoped for: he was learning tons and working with smart, capable people. Toward the end of 2008, however, things changed.
The financial crisis forced the firm to make cuts. Adam was spared in the first round of layoffs, and in subsequent ones as well, but the situation was unsettling. "You would go out to lunch and when you came back, the person sitting next to you would be gone," he says. He also felt the layoffs were handled poorly. "A coworker had been there for 20 years and was let go the same way as everyone else," he explains. After the first round, managers told the survivors in his division they'd been spared because they were the firm's best people. But then a few months later some of those very people were let go. That's when Adam considered leaving. "I remember thinking, 'Wow, I'm not that important to these people. None of us are.'" It was a hard time to lose your job never mind leave one so he stayed put for a while. But he started to keep his eyes open for other opportunities.
Then one day he was on his way to the gym during lunch and he saw a young boy separated from his mother. When a police officer asked Adam to help locate the boy, Adam's first thought was, "I don't have time for this." He assisted, but later that day kicked himself for his initial reaction, "I wasn't this person two years ago: someone too busy to help a woman reunite with her child. What happened to me?" The experience convinced Adam he needed to leave his job. The cost of staying outweighed the benefits. After waiting to receive his next bonus, he quit. He didn't take a job right away (though 14 months later he joined the legal department at another bank) but instead traveled and visited friends and family. "It was the best decision I've ever made," he says. "It's not often you get that mental silence."
Case Study #2: Ask yourself one question
Amal Kapur (not his real name) had been working at a global management consulting firm as a senior consultant for a year and a half when he started to consider whether he should leave. He simply wasn't feeling engaged in his work. "This wasn't just a valley in the natural ebb and flow of a job. I was thinking about my role and whether the company was still the right place for me to be," he says. He tried to think through all the factors that should influence his decision — finances, work/life balance, development opportunities — but couldn't figure out which mattered most to him.
Then his mentor encouraged him to answer just one question: What do you need your job to do? Amal realized that he wanted a job that would prepare him to someday lead a start-up venture. He therefore needed operational experience and leadership opportunities, neither of which he was getting in his current role.
He decided to look for a more execution-focused position at a smaller company. He started to look for a job while still employed but it proved difficult to dedicate enough time to it. Amal saw the biggest risk in leaving as financial but he figured he could float for several months without an income. And he didn't want to get stuck. "The longer I stayed in a role that was clearly not fulfilling my aspirations, the more I would've been disappointed in my inability to take action. Ultimately I had to bet on myself and my ability to find not just 'a job' but 'the job'," he says. After searching for two and a half months, Amal recently started a new position at a small media company.