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When to say those three little words: 'I am quitting'

Ruthless headhunter also dispenses tips on when NOT to

Feature My despair as El Reg's resident job expert is that you people sometimes can’t even follow basic simple advice. For example, when I wrote about pay cuts, some arts grad commented that he’d immediately quit.

I shall type this slowly so you understand: You... quit... when... it... suits... you. Not out of spite, not for revenge, not out of fear, but in as smooth and rational a transition as you can muster.

Quitting has a cost

Employers are wary of job-hoppers and if you’ve not been in this role very long, it can look bad - not to mention the fact that every time you change jobs there is a risk of making a catastrophic mistake. So, however bad things are at present, remember that you can only quit this job once and you need to get the best price you can.

The stupidest form of quitting is when you don’t have a job lined up, regardless of how hot the market for your skills seems to be, because you will find it a lot colder very quickly. It also raises all sorts of red flags about your motives or even your sanity.

Employers' fear of being sued means that references are of little use to businesses trying to spot rogue employees. After all, why should your firm risk expensive legal issues to warn a competitor off a dodgy employee? Odds are that your employment contract explicitly forbids you from giving any sort of reference for exactly that reason.

That leaves HR with little data to spot rogue IT pros, so they focus obsessively on what they can see. For example, they'll often interpret “resigned with no job to go to” as “was told I could quit or be fired”. That’s not fair, I know, but it’s my job to tell you it like it is, not make it fair.

Even if you have a job offer, don’t quit

The recession means that the headcount is more ruthlessly managed than last time you were on the market and the process of hiring is fragile by design. That means some firms are reneging on job offers and your legal protection in this context is close to zero. According to my $1k per hour Reassuringly Expensive Lawyer(TM), the best you can hope for is being paid your notice period as if they’d fired you on your first day. The odds are against you getting anything at all. That leaves you in the lurch with no job and to make it worse, HR at other firms will wonder aloud whether your new employer dropped you because they found out something bad.

But the reason you absolutely must get the written job offer from HR is that it means that all the internal processes have been carried out. Because we’re in interesting times, the number of people who need to sign off on headcount is greater, and the gatekeepers to that are HR. This means that unless HR are prepared to put it in writing, it has no more value to you than a chat over one too many beers.

As recruiters get paid only when you start, it should not shock you that they will start hassling you to quit your old job pretty much as soon as the hiring manager expresses a vague sentiment that maybe you’re the one they want to hire. That’s their job so there’s no point arguing with them any more than the guy in the fake police outfit your council has paid to give you a parking ticket. Don't be swayed.

Playing hardball

If your team has been gutted by defections, it is tempting to follow them. But although it’s rational to prep your CV and start talking to agents (slowly, using short words), you need to work out how much they fear you leaving. The way they pay and treat you is best predicted by the fear factor and ironically the worse they’ve been treating you, the better your new negotiating position. If they are just being shit rather than not needing your team anymore they will want to keep you on board and being the only person who understands critical parts of the system can be made to work to your advantage.

This works best when you have another job you can take if they don’t offer what you want, and be clear that you have to explicitly ask for observable changes in money, work, etc since they will usually not offer them upfront. In these sort of negotiations, phrases like “you’ll be taken care of at bonus time”, or “this will be taken into account” are patronising attempts to give you nothing. The group usually reached this point through mismanagement. You will need to plan for your attempts to strike a reasonable bargain to fail, which is another reason to do this particular negotiation with your old employer after you’ve got an offer.

So when should you start looking for the eject button?

Once you have that job offer, the first reason to press the red button on your old job is evidence of a failure in integrity. The best courses on leadership push the idea that you must be trustworthy both to those above and below. I suspect this surprises you because I did say the “best”, not the ones your bosses went on - which was actually an excuse to get drunk, sexually harass the lone female manager in your group, give up and get pissed after playing golf. Bluntly, they will lie about changes in the way things work and unless the pay rise is immediate and in writing, it is best to assume that it doesn’t exist.

Of course your manager may not have broken his word because he is a bad person, but rather because he’s politically weak. Which is often worse. The very first thing you should do when your boss quits is to ask if there are any jobs going at the new gig and that’s not just because he has found a better work environment and money. Managers often quit for structural reasons that show your firm or group is heading for rough seas.

Even before he quits, the quality of your life is pathetically dependent upon the political clout of your boss. This extends all the way from the kinds of work your group gets to do, to the training budget, whether you have a big enough team to do the job properly without murderous hours and, of course, how much you are paid to do it. Often working for a powerful bastard is much more pleasant than grafting for a good guy who is coming last.

Also, whoever replaces your boss will often bring his favourites with him and any commitment and goodwill you built up with your old boss is then gone without a trace. You will often antagonise the new broom by bringing them up and that’s even before the new leadership decides to “shake things up”, which is often the reason why they were chosen by the powers that be. This can of course be good, but you need a backup plan since good/bad is 50:50.

Your team are scum

In my OS/2 article I shared how a team member was so outraged by my comment that he hit me, which might be taken as evidence that I didn’t have the best time. Nothing could be more false. The IBMers were smart and the so were the contractors - albeit with occasional highly entertaining personalities.

The worst teams I’ve been in weren’t the ones where we argued, because most heated discussions happened because we really cared about doing the job right. The bad times came when colleagues were neither motivated nor smart and it grated on me and bogged down my career. The fact is that over your career you learn more useful stuff from your team than on any courses, including your degree. So being the most clued-up guy on the team may be good for the ego, but is bad for your career. By all means milk that position for a while, but unless there’s a good reason to stay, you need to find somewhere else to learn. Otherwise, as I found to my cost, your tech is out of fashion and you have to move diagonally to somewhere your skills aren’t just a bit dated, but the butt of jokes.

Next page: Hitting a plateau

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