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January 1, 2011

Only Fools Rush in to the Job Market; Be Wise and Take Your Time

It's the season of ... job-quitting fantasies. With year-end bonuses coming in and New Year's resolutions made, it's natural to think about turning over a new leaf professionally. But take it slow. I've had many conversations with people who made career missteps because they left jobs for the wrong reasons, or in the wrong way.

Peter Gray '97
Topics: Strategy

 It's the season of ... job-quitting fantasies. With year-end bonuses coming in and New Year's resolutions made, it's natural to think about turning over a new leaf professionally. (Hmm, maybe it's time to get hired by a client, or move to a competitor, or make a career change.) But take it slow. I've had many conversations with people who made career missteps because they left jobs for the wrong reasons, or in the wrong way. A few rules to bear in mind:

Rule 1: Don't quit for the wrong reasons. Among the top reasons I hear people give for wanting to quit are: boredom with job routine; frustration with slow advancement; resentment from feeling under-compensated; conflict with co-workers; and poor fit with company culture. If those are your main motivations, take a deep breath and think again.

I'm struck by how many people change jobs for these reasons, and then a year or two later, feel similarly frustrated in their new position. Don't give in to the "grass is always greener" syndrome. These problems have a common thread. You can let them crush you, or you can do something about them in a proactive way. You can't make a boring routine interesting, or magically get yourself promoted, but you can demonstrate your readiness for, and ask for, new responsibilities that will make you more valuable to the organization. You can't eliminate office politics or squabbling colleagues, but you can resolve not to let them get you down.

Gandhi said: "We must become the change we want to see in the world." He wasn't talking about job satisfaction, but the wisdom still applies.

Rule 2: Don't quit without having another job lined up. If you hate your job or if you get a large year-end bonus, you may be tempted to quit so you can focus your full attention on your job search. Do not give in to this temptation, unless your job situation is so toxic it is literally causing mental-health problems. Reasons:

* The job search process takes longer than people expect -- often a few months (or longer in an economic downturn). You can put time on your side but only by holding onto your old job during your search for the new one.

* Employers see you as a more desirable candidate while you are employed elsewhere. You do better in interviews when the focus is on what you do in your current job, not why your last job ended. (This reality is rather cruel for the unemployed. If unemployed, you should develop interim job-relevant activities you can discuss -- such as entrepreneurial work, volunteering, coursework, independent research or writing -- to keep the loss of your last job from dominating your networking and interviews.)

* You are in a stronger position to negotiate the terms of a new job offer when you have a current job -- and not just a continued job search -- as your alternative. Once you land that new job, don't give notice until the new offer is absolutely ironclad. That means you've not only signed the new employer's offer letter, but also passed their background, drug and reference checks. Job offers are typically contingent on your clearing these hurdles, even after the offer letter is signed. There are real-life horror stories about people who quit their old job based on a verbal job offer that then fell through. It may be uncomfortable to feel like a lame duck at your old job while waiting for the new hiring process to be completed, but you have to do it.

Rule 3: When you do quit, do it right. When you break the news to your manager, you should be prepared for any of these possibilities:

* In most cases, your resignation will be accepted, and you will be asked how long you can stay to wrap up your work. You should be willing to give at least the standard two weeks, and you should help transition your responsibilities to colleagues as gracefully and as helpfully as possible.

* There is a possibility that your resignation will be accepted, and you will be asked to leave immediately. This happens most often on Wall Street, if you move to a direct competitor or if you handle sensitive information at work. It sounds harsh, but don't take it personally. It's often a matter of company policy. Be prepared to lose access to your office, computer, e-mail and voicemail immediately. Save personal files in advance from your work computer (or better, keep them off of it in the first place), and empty your office in advance of personal items you don't want someone else throwing in a box for shipment to your home.

* Your employer may ask what it would take to make you stay, and make you a counter-offer. My feeling is that once things have gotten to this stage, it's too late to reconsider. If there are better terms that would make you want to stay with your old employer, you should be voicing those over time in regular performance reviews and job-mentoring conversations. If your employer will only make concessions under the threat of your imminent departure, they aren't worth much in the long term.

Remember, your objective is to leave on good terms with your old colleagues. They remain valuable contacts, and you may need references from them someday. People will be surprised, and some may react emotionally. After all, quitting is the ultimate act of rejection on the job. But remember that this is business, not personal. Nobody stays at one job forever, including the managers to whom you're giving notice. Emphasize the positive experience you've had, offer to do whatever you can to help with the transition, and keep a professional demeanor, even if others do not.

Peter Gray '97 is an executive recruiter for the QTI Group in Madison, Wisconsin.

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