How To Quit Your Job

You’re ready to move on, and it’s time to break the news to the boss. What’s the proper protocol for going out on the right note?

Dear Human Resource,

I have decided to start looking for a new job, but I have one burning question. My direct boss works in a different part of the state than I do, and I only see him about once a month because of travel times.

When I do get a new position, if it’s after I have seen my boss for that month, what is the best way to handle giving notice? Do I interoffice my resignation letter, or is email acceptable?

Actually, I suspect your best bet is to use the phone.

To explain why, I need to address quitting decorum more broadly. Your dilemma touches on the basic questions that have to be sorted out in a wide variety of quitting situations.

Think ahead

First, what is your preferred future relationship to this employer? If you are quitting in a rage over shabby treatment and offensively bad management and hope never again to cross paths with any of these sorry bastards, then, sure, shoot off an email. And try to restrain yourself from smashing office equipment as you storm out.

Even then, bear in mind that you might cross paths with one of these sorry bastards some day whether you want to or not. That’s why I’m not a fan of the nasty kiss-off resignation letter. However cathartic that genre may be, it will likely have zero impact, and risks branding you as a malcontent.

It doesn’t sound like you have any ax to grind. So if you are explicitly counting on a good reference from this boss/employer in the future, it’s best to as respectful about the process as possible.

In general I’d say: Giving notice in person is more respectful than doing so over the phone, the phone is more respectful than a letter, a letter is more respectful than an email, and please don’t text a resignation. It’s possible that some kind of video call option might fit in here somewhere, but unless that’s a really routine part of company culture, I’d skip that; it’s just too fussy a process. (N.B.: There may be exceptions to this ranking that depend on timing; see below.)

Finally, think about whether you are actually open to, say, a counter-offer from your current employer. If so, you’re definitely better off breaking your news orally.

Timing is everything

The other big factor in your situation is more related to when than how. In every case I can think of, management will want to know as soon as possible that you’ll be leaving, so they can get busy replacing you.

And if this situation were reversed, wouldn’t this be your top priority, too? I once had an out-of-town client wait until I made an annual in-person visit to inform me my contract was being dropped—a decision they’d made at least a month earlier. They seemed ever so proud of themselves for bravely breaking it to me in person. I would much rather have known sooner, by any medium necessary.

So as you suggest, you certainly don’t want to wait until this manager visits again. But a phone call is both personal and more or less immediate. If you want, you can also send a formal resignation letter, and tell your boss it’s coming through interoffice mail. But unless your company has a policy about this, that letter is more for your records than for your employer. So just stick to the relevant facts, and keep it short.

Of course, there’s a caveat to all this: While your employer wants as much notice as possible, you might prefer tighter timing for reasons of your own. I’ll address that issue below. But this basic framework ought to guide you whether you’re keeping it to a strict two weeks, or giving extra notice.

Update: On Giving Notice—And Getting Fired

A few weeks back, when I answered a question from someone who reported giving two months’ notice and was promptly terminated, some squabbling broke out in the comments.

“Why would you ever give 60 days’ notice?” one reader demanded. “Two weeks is industry standard for professionals and non-professionals. If I was the employer, I would ask the employee why. Are they only half-serious about quitting?”

This is a reasonable question! And multiple perspectives were offered in the comments, from suggesting that sometimes this professional courtesy is appropriate, to insisting that it’s crazy to give anything beyond the minimum notice, since that’s how your employer would likely treat you in the reverse situation: “The company will not give you 60 seconds notice when you’re being down-, right- or out-sized,” as another reader put it.

I generally lean in the latter direction: Stick to the minimum. When workers give too much notice, it’s often because they overestimate their own indispensability, and underestimate how unpleasant a drawn-out goodbye can be. Let go and move on.

That said, the reader who wrote in with that question dropped me a line after reading the comments. “I’m a doctor in a rare medical specialty,” she explained, “and 60 days’ notice is considered standard” in the field. Fair enough. It’s usually a good idea to hew to the standard procedure, no more and no less.

Meanwhile, she also had an update on her general situation (which involved a dispute over unemployment benefits). “I started a new job April 1st, and I’m really happy with my new circumstances,” she reports. “I’m choosing to just let the whole unemployment situation go and move forward with a clear head.”

I always advocate spending more effort on fixing the future rather than obsessing over injustices of the past. So this sounds like a happy conclusion to me!

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