Giving Notice: What It Should Tell You When Workers Don’t Give Any

A few weeks ago, a man on LinkedIn questioned “Why burn bridges?” He was objecting to the behavior of a past employee, a young woman, who’d quit without notice.

I’ve been following the conversation intently ever since. As one commenter put it, “Quitting a job with no notice is certainly an interesting and controversial topic.”

My view of the issue is pretty simplistic, I’ll admit.

It’s “at-will employment,” folks! What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander, right? And I’ve quit a job, or two, without notice. I won’t criticize someone else for doing the same.

But others take a decidedly less charitable view, and to be frank, a few comments have stuck in my craw. For all the “job bolters” out there, it’s time for me to come out and step up.

Take these jobs and …

I was working as an editorial assistant in an engineering firm that repaired Navy ships. My job was helping the editors put together the contract bids. It was my first position out of college.

Things started well. I worked with a woman named Donna, who was a real sweetheart. Very competent, patient, and funny.

Then Donna went on maternity leave, and my fate fell to Laura (not her real name). Oh Lord. The engineers, Navy veterans and just good people, complained regularly about how nasty she was.

And she was nasty. Once, I questioned a directive and she told me to “Eat sh*t,” as God (and a roomful of former co-workers) is my witness.

After three months of being subjected to this madness (it got so bad that I cried on the way home every day for weeks) and after complaining to the woman who’d hired me and being told in response that Laura “just needs to feel appreciated,” I started looking for another job.

And a month later, when I got another job offer, I took it.

I did not give notice. Instead, the day I received the offer I called the payroll administrator of the firm and told her I’d quit and would not be returning. Ever.

Send me my last paycheck, please. “No problem,” she replied.

When a regime change changes things

And that, as they say, was that. (Oh yeah, I did receive a letter from the company three weeks later informing me that I’d need to contact them immediately, or they’d assume I’d abandoned my job. Ya think?)

The second time I quit without notice, I was a bit older but no more tolerant of BS. This time, a regime change had left me on the outs, and I was told to conform to my new boss’ way of thinking — or else.

Well heck, that’s reasonable enough, and I can respect authority. Except my new boss was a lazy, know-nothing liar, and I couldn’t quite get on board with that. Still, I’d soon be going on maternity leave, so why make a fuss?

And two weeks later, as planned, I went on leave. Three months later, I returned — for three days.

Apparently, my boss got it into his head to break me (and I know it sounds crazy, but I don’t have another explanation) and on my third day back from leave, and without warning, he gave me a performance review.

Yes, only three days back. And remember, we’d worked together for all of two weeks before my maternity leave. Reviews for all his other direct reports were overdue. But for some reason, he wanted to review me.

What did he write in the review? He wrote how well things had gone while I’d been on leave. He wrote that he hoped I’d be able to perform as well as the temp (who’d called me every damn day for instructions, mind you. “Jamie, I think you can figure a way to do this.” “Oh no, Crystal, I want to do it the way you’d do it.” Seriously.)

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I read as much of the “review” as I could stomach, and then I quit on the spot. See ya later, alligator. Life is too short for this crap. (He was fired a few months after I quit, by the way.)

Fair is fair, folks

As an HR professional, I’ve had angry managers come to me hoping I can find some company-sanctioned way to penalize the employee who hasn’t given enough notice.

Can we take away accrued but unused vacation? What about a bad reference? Oh, short notice is so inconvenient! So unprofessional! So indicative of  bad character!

Perhaps. But treating an employee like crap is also unprofessional (to say the least), and I won’t even touch that part about character. Employees don’t find their boss’ bad behavior terribly convenient, either.

Ah, Utopia!

In an ideal world, employees would give plenty of notice before moving on, and employers would never give an employee a reason to do anything less.

But it’s not an ideal world, and I won’t bemoan the state of affairs. Sometimes employers determine that it’s within their best interests to fire people without notice, and some-times employees determine that it’s within their best interests to quit without notice. End of story.

One of the commenters on that LinkedIn discussion wrote, “I am hoping one thing for the employee: that she learns to not do it again.”

Well, without having any idea why the employee did what she did, I think that’s a bit much.

Not a fan of the long goodbye

To me, a bad working relationship is like any other bad relationship. It needs to end — and the sooner, the better.

If someone in an abusive relationship decides to leave, does she owe her abuser one more chance to slap her face before she hightails it? I don’t think so.

The truth is that I haven’t always behaved my best at work, but I don’t regret leaving these two jobs or the way I left them.

Forget that. I am not a martyr. As an at will employee, I don’t owe an employer my time and talent. And the employer doesn’t owe me.

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.

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21 Comments on “Giving Notice: What It Should Tell You When Workers Don’t Give Any

  1. I get that some supervisors just plain suck, but leaving without talking to someone does nothing to change the situation except to make you look bad. We have good supervisors, and we have supervisors we assumed were good until finally someone stepped up and let us know what was really going on. Why would you want to leave knowing that your silence ensures that someone else will go through the same hell you just went through? Maybe you are saying “That’s not my problem anymore.” That’s true, but integrity might be. How about instead of simply walking with no explanation or notice, you schedule a meeting with HR or your boss’s boss, calmly explain to them what is going on and how you think things need to be improved, and THEN hand them your resignation with apologies that you need to leave now? You still get out, you can hold your head high because you did what you could to improve things, and maybe the company gets it and no one else has to go through what you did.

    I hate it when people just walk out the door without a conversation. They leave for a lot of different reasons, but if it is a situation with leadership or policies or whatever, and we can improve things by knowing that, I WANT TO KNOW ABOUT IT. Be an adult and do it in a way that has purpose. You may still have to get out of a bad situation as quickly as possible, and by all means you should leave if that is the case, but make your grief count for something before you go.

  2. This is definitely a controversial topic — you’re right. I agree that the best course of action is to leave without notice if and only if the environment is so truly, unbearably hostile. But doing so should be a last resort. I know many friends and colleagues who have survived nightmarish bosses and went on to greener pastures — and on good terms with those bosses, too. You never know when you might need those former bosses to write you a recommendation or serve as a professional reference. I really loved how you likened an employment relationship to an actual relationship — that the bad ones need to end, cold-turkey. But just as an ugly break-up certainly has its fallout, so, too, does a bad end to one’s employment relationship. Those who are “spurned” can definitely haunt you for days to come if things end poorly. Sorry, couldn’t resist that analogy.

  3. I would advise trying to improve the relationship first – first with the boss, then with his/her boss, then HR. If the job was worth fighting for, why just up and leave? Leaving without notice creates a lose/ lose situation. The employee loses a job and the company is left with bad management/leadership.

  4. I’m impressed by the level of optimism displayed in the comments (it’s touching, truly) even while I don’t necessarily share it. I have to think (I could be wrong) that most people who quit without notice have already determined that speaking with management won’t bring about any good. That was certainly true for me.

    ChadV, I applaud you for wanting to know what’s going on with your management, that’s the way it should be. Still, many others don’t want to know jack. They’re as happy as can be with the status quo, of which they are perfectly aware. Remember one of the examples I gave–the foul-mouthed manager abusing the Navy vets who performed the company’s core work. Everyone knew she was horrible, but she was friends with the boss. So thanks for the chance to be a Gladiator Mr/Ms Company, but you need to handle your own mess. My family needs me sane and chipper–not crazed and depressed. Gotta bounce.

    I’ll tell you one thing, though, you’ve all given me an excellent idea for another article …

    1. Crystal – Like you, I was also struck by the optimistic urging here to talk to the powers-that-be one more time before saying “I’m ‘outta here.” I thought your 2 personal examples clearly made the point that no amount of additional talking would have done any good in either situation.

      But, I understand where the comments are coming from because I always want to believe that it is never too late to fix something, and that redemption is always an option.

      However my 30 plus years managing people, and seeing all kinds of terrible supervisors systematically destroying the organization’s “most valuable asset,” clearly show that by the time someone has made the decision to bolt, it’s really too late to stop it or fix things.

      What the departing employee thinks, when confronted by a last minute offer to talk things out or come up with more pay or something similar, is this — why didn’t they care enough to reach out to me before now?

      It’s a reasonable question, and there is no good answer to it, other than this — “we simply didn’t care enough.” That’s what is all comes down to, because caring and engaged managers know there is trouble brewing well before the pot boils over.

      Your 2 examples just underline the point, again, that people leave managers, not jobs. More talk in both of your cases would not have done a bit of good except perhaps to frustrate you even more.

  5. I certainly understand the frustration, but what about the people that are still there? We network with our co-workers as well as supervisors. Your co-workers may not remember you fondly when they move on to a great position that would require someone with your particular expertise. You might miss out on a great opportunity because you turned tail and ran. Just a thought.

    1. And it’s not a bad thought, either. I guess I’ve always relied upon my talents and my Maker for my bread. Sometimes that bread was a few saltines, and other times it was a gourmet basket overflowing with fresh baked goodies. Overall, however, I’d say I’ve done okay.

      But regardless, I decided a long time ago that when it comes to work nothing would be worse than staying at a job just because I’m too afraid of what might happen if I leave. I just don’t want to live that way.

  6. Thank you so much for this article. You’ve spoken up for hundreds or thousands of others. All the comments here are helpful. I take my hat off to you.

  7. I too am a bit intrigued by the level of optimism displayed in several of the comments. While I agree, giving 2-weeks notice is considered a professional courtesy, I don’t think it is warranted in all cases.

    Involuntary terminations and layoffs are rarely conducted with the expectation that the person keep working a couple more weeks. So, why “should” voluntary resignations require that amount of time?

    Also, I don’t recall a time where anything significant was gained by the employer (or employee) in having someone provide that much notice. Sure a few loose ends can be wrapped up, work can be reassigned, replacement/re-org efforts can begin, but that’s about it. Usually that stuff can be accomplished same day or won’t happen until after the person leaves anyway.

    The main “argument” many seem to suggest for giving notice is for the purpose of getting a good reference. Well, if someone is leaving because of an abusive manager, corrupt top leadership, dysfunctional culture, bullying or other undesirable working conditions, the chances that anyone involved in perpetuating that would be asked to be a reference are rather slim. I can’t imagine adding anyone to my reference list that engages in that type of action or enables others to do so. I wouldn’t trust them to offer valid and objective feedback if/when they were contacted to provide a reference.

    Finally, my guess is that those that believe “talking it out” or raising the issue up the food chain haven’t experienced anything by ideal work environments full of professionalism and free of politics, egos and other negative forces. Apparently, that’s not as common as some of us would like it to be.

    What if these sudden (no notice) departures are due to unethical, illegal or other egregious behavior at the C-level and/or within HR? What if anyone that does speak out against said behavior subjects him/herself to retaliation and other punishment that ultimately results in constructive discharge?

    Leaving a situation like that with or without notice is really the only way to send a message that they don’t deserve the opportunity to inflict any more pain on that individual. Great post, Crystal!

    ~KB @TalentTalks

    1. KB, what an excellent comment! I think you’ve offered many good reasons why someone might have more faith in talking things out (further) than you and I have. Thanks for the insight.

  8. Professional shmeshinal – if you work at will, if you have no contract that states it is not permissible (lawsuit, damages bla bla blah), if your boss treats you like shit- just leave. The companies of this century have zero reasons to take care of their employees so employees owe them no loyalty in return. That is what corporate wanted so it is what they will get. Automate everything, no more people answering phones on the other line- just press 1 for this, press 2 for that. I don’t care what my former bosses think of me now and I have never needed a reference from them anyway. I get hired on my portfolio, my skills and the opinions of my former clients. That is all the references I need.

    1. The only thing employers can do legally is confirm dates, job titles, salaries and eligiblility for rehire. Bad mouthing ex employees could lead to lawsuits. I’ve got ceise and desist letters, attorneys, and paralegals all ready for bad reference checks.

    2. Too many people worry too much about the proverbial “reference”. Most of the toxic employers I’ve had, forgot the employee ever even existed shortly after terminating him/her, or after they resigned, with/or without notice. I had a previous manager bad mouth me, but fortunately, the new employer took it with a grain of salt. I never use certain sociopathic bosses I’ve had, but rather a colleagues name, and for that matter, few if any employers have even contacted my references or past names listed on a job application, save for a couple bush league ones.

  9. I wouldn’t almost give no notice on principle. Lets be honest the only way companies will fear behaving like this is if employees act the same way. Ultimately if they want notice they need to pay for it. Everything is negotiable including this and there’s no reason to give it away for free. Besides it’s just too risky to give notice.

  10. I have quit without notice a couple times and I think the idea that doing so is scandalous or wrong is antiquated and ignorant. Everyone has limits on what and how much they are willing to take and not everyone feels they should stay in an environment that provides nothing but insult to injury for a paycheck. Some people, myself included, feel that they are an asset and dont mind having to make as many moves as is necessary to find the spot that benefits them as well. I believe it’s been mentioned but bears repeating, people don’t just leave their job suddenly if everything is great, unfortunately it’s not unusual for other employees to be that catalyst for many people. Who would keep returning to a job that has bullies and manipulators who are a constant source of misery? Perhaps if your company has a high overturn rate you’d want to pay attention to who these people are forced to interact with, my personal perspective, but I think it’s sound advice.

  11. I know this article is old, but so glad that I stumbled across it today. I left a hostile work environment recently after securing a better position. After 3 years of dedication, I was punished for giving short notice(although I think that this was more about the fact that I was leaving at all). My hours were cut and I was treated like garbage my last few days so I left earlier than planned. The reason for the short notice was simple: I didn’t know what would happen if I tried to give two weeks notice, and I couldn’t afford to take that risk. Although having the unexpected time off turned out to be the blessing in disguise that I needed, this experience has changed my view on giving notice. After all, the employer rarely gives you notice when you’re being fired or laid off, so you have the same rights to terminate the working relationship immediately. People tend to forget that “at-will” works both ways.

  12. Since most employment is “at will”, and the employer can fire people on the spot, then why do they insist that employees give “appropriate” notice?

    I agree, it’s polite to give notice. Most of the time I did. It depends on the employer. Every company is different.

    There was a time I was on one job and things were going so badly that I was going to resign. I tried to see the manager on a Friday but she made herself too busy to want to speak to me. So I did the next best thing. I went home and sent an email that I resigned and won’t be in Monday.

    Not something I did before or since.

  13. Although I’m surprised that the writer, as an HR person, is ambivalent to the traditional 2 week notice, I’d agree that in some cases, it’s unavoidable to just walk away. I’ve been in toxic job cultures where giving one’s notice is met with a hostile “get out (expletives) now”. My current job of 5 years tenure is this way. I’m looking for a new job (being 60 makes it tough), and my game plan is to finish it out on a Friday, then start my new job (whatever that will be) on the following Monday. My faith tells me to be honorable, but the reality is that my employer, like several others (sadly), is grossly dishonorable. If one is in a dangerous and hostile environment, where unethical and illegal practices are going on, where there’s a potential volatile reaction, or where they terminate you on the spot, then I’d personally walk out at the end of my shift.

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