‘I Quit, But My Boss Won’t Let Me Go!’

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Photo: Spencer Grant/Getty Images

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Dear Boss,

How should I handle a clingy soon-to-be-former boss?

I work for a small nonprofit and am part of a four-person team (there’s no overlap — I’m the only person in my position on our team). My boss and executive director knew last October that I wanted to begin looking for a new job (my current position is basically entry-level and I have been in it for almost five years, so it’s not a surprise). They both asked if I would stay on through the spring to work on our big yearly event, which I agreed to. 

Finally, I found a great new position at the beginning of September. As mentioned, my boss and executive director both knew this summer that I was actively looking, and supported me in my search. I was able to give four weeks’ notice, for an October 2 start date. But ever since I gave notice, my boss has been “jokingly” refusing to believe I will actually leave. She keeps saying things like, “You won’t actually leave! You love us too much!” “It’s not like you’re REALLY leaving.” “We’ll be calling you every day with questions!” I’ve gently told her that, yes, I am leaving, there’s no possibility of my staying, and she either guilt-trips me or ignores me. Part of the problem may be that this is a very close-knit organization with a good amount of camaraderie in the office. It is a place that people leave and return to, though I don’t plan to do so. 

She also keeps dropping random projects and tasks in my lap that could easily be done by other people. It’s a little frustrating because I wanted to use this time to complete some technical manuals, write a transition document, and leave instructions for the fall projects for my replacement, and when I ask for time to work on these documents, she pushes my requests aside and says there will be time for that “later.”

I feel like I’ve gone the extra mile in terms of giving notice, being flexible, and even offering to train my replacement on my nights and weekends. But every day I get the guilt trip on top of unnecessary busywork.

Is there anything I can do? I want to facilitate the best transition possible because I care about this organization, its mission, and my co-workers. I’m afraid that she literally won’t let me complete the work I need to complete before my last day and I’ll have to work on it outside of work hours once I start my new job. 

What’s making you think that you’ll need to continue working on the transition once you leave? Typically when people leave a job, that’s it — they’re done with it. It’s not normal practice to continue doing whatever work didn’t get wrapped up before your last day. And generally, it’s not smart to agree to that, because you want to be able to turn your full attention to your new job. New jobs are stressful and take a lot of focus and mental energy! You’ll almost certainly do better at your new job if you’re not still feeling tethered to the old one (and if you can relax in the evenings rather than doing more work).

Now, I come from nonprofits, so I get that the sense of commitment there can be a lot deeper than at other jobs. When you care about an organization’s mission and its success, you can find yourself doing things like agreeing to do more work for them after you’ve left. And you may have seen other people there do that, so it can feel normal. But it’s 100 percent not obligatory, even in organizations where others have done it. It’s really okay to make a clean break.

If you’ve already promised your boss that you’ll do work after you leave, you’re allowed to reconsider that. You can say, “I’m realizing that I’m going to be so busy with my new job that I can’t commit to doing additional work for you after my last day.” (But make sure you say that ASAP so that she’s not planning on you.)

At the absolute most, you might agree to come in for a couple of hours once to train your replacement and then be available for one to two short phone calls afterward, which she can save up questions for. (To people outside of nonprofits, this probably sounds like too much. It’s not an uncommon thing in the nonprofit world where people care about the organization’s mission — sort of like becoming a volunteer for a cause you care about — but it should have clear boundaries and not take up more time than I’ve outlined here. Otherwise you’re still working for them.)

As for your boss’s comments about how you’re not really leaving: Unless she’s truly delusional, she knows you’re leaving. These are almost certainly jokes — uncomfortable ones, but still jokes. That said, if you really think she’s harboring hope that your last day will come around and you’ll decide not to leave after all, you can address that head-on. I’d combine it with the conversation above about what you will and won’t do after you’re gone — and what you still need to get done before you leave.

For example, you could sit down with her and say something like this: “As you know, my last day is [date]. It’s important to me to leave behind thorough documentation for my work, so that there’s a smooth transition for whoever comes in after me. Because my last day is approaching quickly, I plan to focus exclusively on transition work to leave things in good shape, which means I’m not going to be able to do X, Y, and Z. I think it’s important that I focus on the things that only I’m able to do, in the remaining days that I have.” If she pushes back on this and tells you that there will be time for it later, say this: “We’re now down to the wire. If I’m going to be able to leave documentation behind, it has to happen now. I don’t feel right about leaving that unfinished, so I’m going to make it my priority until it’s done.”

Then say this: “I know you’ve been joking about me not really leaving, but I want to make sure you know that I’m leaving on the timeline we discussed. To be honest, when you make those jokes, I worry that you might have different expectations than I do about how much I’ll be able to help after I’m gone. I’m going to need to focus on my new job, so my availability for questions will be really limited. I can come in once for a few hours to train the new person and I can do one or two calls for crucial questions, but I’m not going to be available for more than that. I want to make sure that you’re planning accordingly — and that’s part of why it’s so important to me that I finish up this transition documentation.”

This should work. But even if she doesn’t want to accept this, you’re in control here! She can’t make you work after your last day; you’re not an indentured servant, and it’s very, very normal to set boundaries like this when you leave a job. I suspect you’re worried that if you refuse, it could impact your standing with her and possibly the type of reference she gives you in the future — but as long as you’re cheerful about your “no, sorry, I’ll be too busy for that!” it’s very unlikely that will be happen. Throw in a regretful-sounding “I wish I could help, but I’m swamped” if you think it will help it go down better … but hold firm on this.

Really, when it comes to leaving a job on good terms, all you need to do is to give a reasonable amount of notice (you did), leave your projects in good shape (you are), leave documentation for the next person (you’re trying), and sometimes be available for a very few questions after you leave (you plan to). That’s it. You are not obligated to be available as much as they want, or for how long they want. It’s really okay to just cheerfully say, “Nope, sorry, I can’t do that.”

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Ask a Boss: ‘I Quit, But My Boss Won’t Let Me Go!’