Ask the Headhunter: Why it’s risky to give notice when you quit

Photo by Noel Hendrickson/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images.

Life and business are full of choices, and the “rules” are wired to benefit employers, writes headhunter Nick Corcodilos. Photo by Noel Hendrickson/Photographer’s Choice RF/Getty Images.

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979 and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade.

In this special Making Sense edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.

Below, we have updated the piece with Nick’s video response to readers’ comments and questions regarding this week’s column.

Question: I’m hoping to score a federal government job I’ve wanted for years. Someone is pulling for me on the inside, and HR is expecting my application as soon the position is posted. If I get this job, it will be my last until I retire. After a few years, I’ll even be able to move anywhere I like in the world and work remotely.

I despise my current job and everything it represents, and sometimes I wonder if they will even notice that I’m gone. But here’s where it gets complicated and emotional. I lost my job during the recession, was unemployed for two years and lost my house to foreclosure. It left a lot of emotional damage. Then, a few months ago, I accepted another position. I even created an account in their online HR system and chose my benefits. Three days later, the job was rescinded due to “funding issues.” Now, I’m terrified that if I get an offer, it will vanish after I’ve quit, and I’ll be left destitute.

What I want to ask you: Do I really have to give notice? I’m thinking of just saying I’m going on vacation, when in fact I’m moving back to D.C., and then call on my first day and say I won’t be back. Although I probably will never need them as a reference, it’s a small world — but I don’t think I even care. The world has changed a lot, and I’d really like to think this won’t come back to bite me. Am I right?

Nick Corcodilos: What I love about Ask The Headhunter readers is that you ask the tough, in-your-face questions. The conventional wisdom about quitting without giving notice is etched in stone: Don’t do it! Always give notice!

I say bunk.

Life and business are full of choices, and the “rules” are wired to benefit employers and to make life easier for career coaches, who just love simplistic edicts and soft pablum. So let’s explore the hard choices for your benefit.


How to leave your job without fear

You’re asking me for permission to do something that is bad form and bad business practice. I can’t give you that permission — you must decide whether or not to do it.

But what you’re describing is a new spin on giving notice. Having had one job offer rescinded, you don’t want to risk it again. (See “Are disappearing job offers a new trend?”) You want to actually start a new job before you resign from the old one — but such a hedge against disaster makes giving notice virtually impossible. Let’s distinguish between what’s allowed, what’s bad and what’s advisable.

Is quitting without notice allowed?

I don’t know of any law that requires you to give your employer more notice than “I’m leaving today.” (You’d have to check with a lawyer if you want to be absolutely certain it will not bite you legally.) So I believe you can quit your job and leave without notice. Bear in mind that in most jurisdictions employment is at will, and an employer can fire you on the spot for no reason or any reason. Employers do it frighteningly often.

You’ve already experienced the ultimate termination: A job offer was rescinded, effectively firing you before you started. (See “Protect yourself from exploding job offers.”)

Another issue is whether your current employer imposes any sanctions or penalties for what you’re considering doing. I know employers that will withhold severance or other benefits or attempt to recover educational investments they’ve made in the employee. If you work in sales, there might be a recoverable draw you’d have to pay back. (Readers making job changes between commercial companies should read “Gotcha: The Non-compete agreement.”) Check your employee policy manual to make sure you’re not missing anything.

If the law doesn’t prohibit it, you can probably do it, even if somebody else doesn’t like it. (Don’t miss the section below about contracts.)

Is it bad form?

Now let’s consider bad form. As you point out, leaving without notice could result in bad feelings and worse references — assuming they care that you’re gone. But don’t skip giving notice thoughtlessly, and don’t hurt your employer unnecessarily. If word gets out, your action could tarnish your reputation more widely. You might upset a co-worker who respects you. The HR manager at the company might mention to HR people in other organizations that you left them in the lurch. A bad reputation can grow from leaving without notice. It’s always preferable to leave on good terms.

Will this come back to bite you? It might. Is it worth the risk? If you do indeed spend the rest of your career at the new job you hope to get, it may not really matter.

Is there any chance your old employer might contact your new employer after you’re hired and poison your new well? Scorned employers sometimes do stupid, irresponsible things out of spite. I’m not sure how much I’d worry about this, but be aware of the possibility and factor it into your decision — and take precautions. Since you’d be taking a federal job, I’m not sure how easy it would be to immediately terminate you. (See “The 6 Gotchas of Goodbye.”)

The warning I’ll give you: Do not disclose to anyone what you’re about to do or where you’re going until you’re already at the new job.

You don’t want your old employer — or anyone else, whether intentionally or not — to nuke your new job or your old job before the deal is sealed. The risk may seem small if you talk, but the consequences could be huge. That makes taking the risk imprudent.

Is it advisable?

This brings us to what’s advisable. An action that might hurt your reputation may be worth the risk and the price — you must make that judgment. It requires balancing the costs and benefits.

In another, related scenario — I call it juggling job offers — I point out that the consequences of a choice that upsets others may very well be worth the benefits. This is from “Fearless Job Hunting, Book 9: Be The Master Of Job Offers,” pp. 15-17, and I think it addresses quitting without giving notice:

Do I think it’s a nice thing to do? Of course not. It’s a crummy thing to do to a company… You will have to live with your decision and its consequences. It could affect your reputation. But life hands us painful choices sometimes, and we have to deal with them.

In other words, calculate the adverse consequences of your sudden departure and be ready to pay for them. The new job could be worth it, and the risks may be acceptable. Hey — nobody said this was easy, and I’m saying there is no free ride.

What did you sign up for?

Here’s where what’s legal gets a bit more complicated. There’s the matter of contracts and agreements. People don’t realize what a can of worms they might open when they quit. Think carefully. Plan ahead.

Study your company’s policies, because there could be grounds for legal action against you if you violate agreements you’ve made. Re-read the job offer you signed when you joined up — what did you agree to? Consider what you may have to sign in order to get your last paycheck. HR can be sneaky. (See The HR Gantlet: How to leave your job without getting hurt.)

Even if you work in a state where employment is “at will,” your employment contract could supersede that. You may subject yourself to a breach of contract that could cost you dearly. This is why consultation with a good employment lawyer may be worthwhile.

Eyes open!

The last thing I’ll point out is that leaving a job — no matter how you do it — poses many routine risks. In “Parting Company: How to leave your job,” I provide a seven-page “Crib Sheet” about many of the gotchas people don’t think about. Leaving your job can exact costs you didn’t consider. Among the challenges covered in “Parting Company”:

  • What will happen to your stuff? Will you be able to take it with you?
  • Are you sure your vacation time will not be charged against your last paycheck?
  • Will you lose any benefits you are owed?
  • What happens to your pension plan?
  • Can the company take action against you over company property in your possession?
  • Do you know for sure “what’s theirs” and “what’s yours”?

I’m not trying to scare you. The new job you describe sounds great for you. And if you really despise your current job, it may be worth doing what’s bad form for the benefit of your career. Proceed with eyes wide open.

Hedge against HR

You shouldn’t have to risk your job if you want to accept a new one.

The bigger problem your situation exposes is that employers have made it risky for you “to do the right thing” and give them notice when you quit a job. Rescinded job offers have become frighteningly common, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s HR’s fault. You should consider whether or not you need a hedge to protect your current job when you get a new job offer. It may be prudent not to give notice when you get a new offer in case that new offer goes south — but be ready to pay the price of your choice.

If HR managers don’t like this advice, they should call on their brethren to stop rescinding job offers, because that’s what sometimes makes this hedge necessary.

Until employers start behaving with more integrity, you need to protect yourself. Use your best judgment.

Dear Readers: Did you ever quit a job without giving notice? How should this reader handle this situation? What other factors should you consider when deciding whether to give notice?

Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “How Can I Change Careers?”, “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

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