Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Deciding whether to remain in a job or take a new one should be done with a minimum of emotion and a lot of analysis

If you stopped 100 people on the street and asked each one: "Have you ever thought about quitting your job?" the odds are that 100 of them would say"Yes." It's almost inevitable, in today's stressful, never-stopping world of work, that each of us will at one time or another daydream about packing it in and saying "sayonara" to the job we're in.

That doesn't mean our jobs aren't great jobs that other people wouldn't envy, or aren't challenging assignments that will provide us with terrific development experiences and fair compensation and all sorts of other things. It just means we're human. From time to time, we can't help but wonder: "Is there something better for me out there?"

In more than 20 years of practicing HR in the white-collar workplace, I've noticed that people typically fall into one of three groups where their relationships with their jobs are concerned. The first group might be called Rabbits: They're the ones who are scared to leave.

A Seller's Market

These people can put up with anything, whether it's a third consecutive weekend of solid Saturday and Sunday work, or a public tongue-lashing from the boss that makes everyone within earshot cringe. They may hate their job—it's hard to imagine how someone could like the kind of treatment they withstand—but they'll never leave. They don't seem to have a worldview that includes them working happily under better conditions. They've got a job, and they're sticking with it. People can talk to them all day about better opportunities and even arrange interviews for them, but some invisible glue binds them to a job where they feel secure, even if the cost is daily criticism or a desk in the boiler room.

If you see yourself in this description, you might ask yourself: What am I clinging to?

You can certainly job-hunt while you're employed—people do it all the time. Is the fear of striking out for greener pastures great enough to make you wake up in the morning with your jaw aching from having ground your teeth all night? Your health is worth a lot, and that's not a philosophical statement, it's an economic one. Workplace commentators across the country are proclaiming 2007 a seller's market (and you, the employable person, are the seller). If you've got Rabbit tendencies, now is the time to shake them off and find a position that will boost your self-esteem, not destroy it.

Knowing When to Quit

The second group of people I've run into I call Searchers. They tend to be very excited upon taking a new position and trumpet to their friends: This place is the greatest! My boss is tremendous! The opportunity is amazing! Their expectations, in fact, may be way out of sync with reality. No job in the real world can live up to the hype. So, within six months or so, the Searchers get deflated. The honeymoon is over, and things aren't as picture-perfect as they seemed during those heady interviewing dinners and lunches. They get disappointed, and soon they're on the job hunt again.

Pragmatists make up the third category, and I hope this is where you fit. Pragmatists are people who look at their job situations realistically and likewise keep an eye open to possibilities across the street or down the block. When Pragmatists have a bad day and fantasize about quitting their job, they sleep on it. The next day, they ask themselves: Was yesterday just a bad day, or are there problems on the job that I really need to focus on?

If communication with their boss is a problem, they set to work on improving the interaction. If they've got miserable clients to support or the wrong equipment for the job, they jump into solving those root-cause issues rather than jump online and start searching After all, they've made an investment in the company and vice versa. Better to stay and see things improve than to leave a situation for one that may be just as messed up, or worse.

Make a Pro Vs. Con List

Still, Pragmatists know when to call it quits, and won't hesitate to start looking when their internal radar says: "Get out of Dodge." It might take six months or a year for the data points to pile up, leaving them with the conclusion that no amount of elbow grease or one-on-one team-building will solve the company's ills, and that the universe has other plans for them in any case. They don't rush to a judgment that it's time to quit, but they don't avoid taking that step when all signs point to it, either.

It sounds obvious, but I get letters all the time from people who have forgotten a fundamental truth: This is business. Keeping a job (vs. leaving the job) is a business decision, and you will make a better decision if you can put the emotional attachment aside. From a business perspective, is your bread best buttered at your current job or elsewhere? If you're on the fence, get out a piece of paper, draw a line down the center of it from top to bottom, and label one side "reasons to stay" and the other side "reasons to go."

Now, start listing the factors that matter to you. Easy commute—that's worth something. Amazing CEO—that's worth a lot. You decide on the relative weight of each factor. No one can tell you whether a great salary balances a 70-hour workweek or whether a company gym is more important than only having to travel once a year. That's your call.

As you add up the pluses and minuses, think about Rabbits and Searchers, and try to avoid being one or the other. Fear of change will hold you back, while a nervous tendency to jump ship whenever your boss frowns at you will hurt your résumé. You have to find the middle ground, so that when you do change jobs, you won't look back with regrets.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.