Ask a Boss: How Do I Quit the Job I’ve Had Forever?

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Dear Boss,

I have been working for the same small law firm for almost ten years. It once consisted of me, a billing assistant, a paralegal, a receptionist, and the attorney. Over the last three years, all of the other employees have quit and my boss has failed to replace them. He did attempt to replace our accounting and billing person — first with his wife, then with his former babysitter, then with a friend, all of whom had zero experience and worked just long enough to screw up our records and quit. This took place over the course of about a year and a half, during which time none of them ever truly took on all of the work that they should have and I was expected to train and assist each new hire, while also making sure what they never got to was completed. When they failed, he allowed me to hire an administrative assistant who was an unmitigated disaster. She lied on her application and in her interview and refused to accept that she made mistakes or to correct them. It’s been seven months since we fired her, and he has only attempted once to hire someone to replace this person — another friend with zero experience!

Part of the reason that I’ve tolerated this is because we’ve been together for so many years. I know his family, have seen his kids grow, was there when his father passed away, etc. On his side, he was there when I was diagnosed with cervical cancer, when my fiancé was hurt and out of work and I had to leave work early to take him to four doctors a week, and when I got the call that my grandmother had passed and was so upset I couldn’t drive — again, the list goes on.

The other reason that I haven’t left, despite my ever-increasing unhappiness, is that I am getting married in two weeks and will be taking half of the month off for my wedding and honeymoon. I took a lot of personal time this year, knowing that no new company would have allowed this, and basically sucked it up so that I could have everything I wanted for my wedding and keep a stable job.

When I come back I know what I will face: He’s already decided against temp help, so mail will be unopened, checks written without using the system, deadlines missed, and emails unanswered. I gave him a list of things that need to be done while I’m gone and asked him if he wanted to go over what we need to get done before I leave — he said no. He has all but said he’s going to try to wait it out and do nothing until I get back. I am simply trying not to think too much about it so I don’t stress out during my whole trip.

I know him well enough to know what will happen when I get back, and when he waves his arm at the disaster that he’s left me and laughs, there is nothing that can stop me from quitting.

So my question is twofold: (1) As an employee of ten years, what do I owe my employer as far as notice? I do literally everything in the office and I don’t think he could learn what I do in two weeks and there is definitely no way that he could hire someone within that time frame and train them to do everything that I do. At the same time, I feel like if I give him too much notice he will assume that he can just put it off and I won’t leave. (2) Should I tell him all of the reasons why I am leaving, or just leave it with a general “I don’t believe there is any further opportunity for me with the firm and it’s time for me to leave”? If I listed all of the reasons that I feel I am being taken advantage of it would be just as long as this letter is now, if not longer, but I don’t want to sound like a psycho either. Help!

You should give him whatever amount of notice you want to give him, as long as it’s not less than two weeks.

Notice periods aren’t generally intended to provide enough time for an employer to find and train a replacement. The professional norm for notice periods is two weeks, and that’s not nearly long enough for those things to happen. Rather, that time is for you to wrap up any loose ends that are easily wrapped up, give status updates on where your projects stand, write up documentation to leave for the next person, and otherwise assist in transitioning your work. If notice periods were supposed to allow for a replacement to be hired and trained, they’d need to be many months long since it generally takes anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to hire a new person, and then a few weeks for that person to be able to start (since they may have to give their own notice to their current employer), to say nothing of how long it takes to train them once they do start.

That said, there are some jobs and some offices where it’s common for people to give more than two weeks’ notice. Most often that means three or four weeks, although there are also much rarer cases where someone will give months of notice … but usually that’s an “I’m going to graduate school in August” type of situation, not “I’m leaving because I’m fed up.”

Really, though, two weeks is what’s considered the professional norm, and unless you’ve explicitly agreed to something else in the past, two weeks is perfectly sufficient. That’s true even though you’re a long-time employee, and it’s true even though you’ve built a personal relationship with your boss and feel loyalty to him. Notice periods aren’t supposed to be a reflection of loyalty; they’re just a professional courtesy extended in a business relationship. (And this is a business relationship, which you shouldn’t lose sight of.)

But if that feels heartless to you, then sure, give three or four weeks. That’s considered a generous amount of notice by anyone reasonable, even when the person leaving is a cherished long-term employee.

Of course, if it’s in your interest to give even longer than that — for example, a few months so that you have time to look for another job — that’s fine to do. (Or at least it’s fine as long as you don’t believe your boss is the sort who will push you out earlier than you want to go, but it doesn’t sound like he is.)

But please don’t worry that if you give too much notice, your boss won’t believe you’re really leaving and won’t use that time to search for a replacement. That may happen, but that’s not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to give him clear notice and a clear ending date. Whether or not he uses that time smartly is up to him.

Now, should you explain the real reasons that you’re leaving? As a general rule, it only makes sense to do that if (a) your boss has a track record of being open to feedback and you think your candor will truly have an impact, and (b) it won’t negatively impact the reference you get from this manager in the future.

In this case, though, even if both those things are true, I don’t think there’s much to be gained from giving him a long list of reasons when you can instead sum it all up as “I want to move to a larger company where I don’t have to wear so many hats and where there’s more structure and organization.” You can also say, “It’s been tough for me to juggle everything in the last few years with what’s happened with the billing, paralegal, and receptionist positions, and I can tell I’m burning out.” Hell, you can even say, “When I realized I was spending my honeymoon dreading the chaos I’d be coming back to because there was no one to cover for me, I realized it was time for me to move on.”

Of course, once you do this, be prepared for him to try changing your mind or even try to guilt you into staying. Resolve ahead of time not to be swayed. In fact, since you’ve been there a decade, even if you were convinced that he was going to fill those three vacant positions tomorrow with excellent, qualified people (which is obviously unlikely), it makes sense to move on now in order to keep yourself marketable. Working at a very small, very dysfunctional business can limit you if you stay there too long, because you tend not to get the sort of feedback, opportunities for growth, and reputation-building that you can get if you’re working somewhere more functional … and sometimes the experience you get is so steeped in the dysfunction of the place that it’s hard to make it translate to other settings. So hold firm if he tries to change your mind.

These are the words you want: “I appreciate hearing that you want me to stay, but I’ve thought it through and my decision is final. My last day will be ___.”

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Ask a Boss: How Do I Quit the Job I’ve Had Forever?