Quitting with style: the dignified exit versus the vengeful ‘up yours’

Have you ever dreamed of launching a tirade of abuse at the boss before exiting in a blaze of glory? Then this blog’s for you.

In my 25-year career, I’ve worked for seven full-time employers (including my current gig). That’s an average of just over three and a half years at each place of work, meaning every job has represented a significant period in my life.

It follows, therefore, that each decision to move on has been momentous. As a player in the somewhat beleaguered publishing game, I’ve been a victim of redundancy on three occasions. So that leaves just three times when I’ve had to knock on the boss’s door and announce my intention to leave.

To be honest, I can recall little of any of these conversations – the most recent was 10 years ago this month. Two were precipitated by my impending departure to foreign lands, so the boss could hardly take it personally.

But as boring as my employment history may have been, even I have had those moments when I’ve dared to dream of launching a tirade of abuse at the Big Cheese before exiting in a blaze of glory. Perhaps not quite as unhinged as Edward Norton’s fantastic effort in Fight Club, or as calculated and ignoble as Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, but definitely as impassioned and destructive as Kevin Kline’s model-smashing walk-out in My Life as a House.

I got close once, unloading on the CEO when he dared to suggest my close-knit and over-worked editorial team wasn’t pulling its weight – but fortunately it was Melbourne Cup day and we all ended up drinking ourselves back together during an unforgettable afternoon in an Erskineville hotel.

The point is, for better or worse, employees tend to view the act of resigning as a major event – so it’s surprising that very little research has been done regarding the various ways we quit and how things tend to pan out for both employee and employer during that awkward little notice period and beyond.

It’s this gap in the academic literature that inspired a new study just published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. It’s a quite involved four-part paper, so I won’t dissect it in too much detail here, but there is no end of interesting material to relate – not least a fascinating “taxonomy of resignation styles”.

Drawing on three different sample groups – two including employees who had resigned and one including supervisors who had accepted a recent resignation – the authors pin-pointed seven distinct styles of quitting:

  1. The ‘by the book’ resignation – This is the method I myself have favoured, along with 31% of this study’s ultimate sample. The resigning employee initiates a face-to-face discussion, usually accompanied by a formal letter, in which a reasonable period of notice is given and the reasons for resignation are made clear.
  2. The ‘perfunctory’ resignation – The style adopted by 29%, this follows a similar format to ‘by the book’ but is less personal, omitting any reasons for leaving and making no reference to future plans.
  3. The ‘grateful goodbye’ – In 9% of farewells, employees make a point of expressing gratitude to co-workers and do whatever they can to minimise the disruption caused by their departure, which is often preceded by an exceptionally long notice period.
  4. The ‘in the loop’ resignation – 8% of employees informed their supervisors in advance of their plans to leave the organisation, so the eventual formal resignation comes as no surprise.
  5. The ‘bridge burning’ resignation – This is the classic ‘up yours’ style favoured by many in their imaginations but by only 10% in this study. Characterised by the departing employee’s unprofessional behaviour, such as insulting the boss or harming the business in some way, it usually involves a very short notice period – or more likely an escort off the premises if you haven’t already shot through.
  6. ‘Impulsive quitting’ – Basically abandoning one’s job with little or no notice; for 4% of the sample, having another job lined up is secondary to just getting the hell out of the current one.
  7. The ‘avoidant’ resignation – 9% of employees in the study just didn’t want to face the boss in person, so they resorted to sending an email after hours or leaving a letter on the boss’s desk. Some skipped the boss completely, speaking to HR instead. Or just ceased to show up…

Clearly, these seven styles could be characterised as generally positive (numbers 1-4) or negative (5-7). Some are emotion-charged; some are defined by indifference. But beyond this neat little mechanism to categorise quitters, what were the authors’ key findings?

Perhaps of most interest to employers would be what leads employees to adopt a negative resignation style. After all, these unpleasant exchanges can often have negative implications for the organisation either in terms of internal morale or external publicity – an extreme example being the decision by Goldman Sachs executive director, Greg Smith, to resign via an opinion piece in The New York Times that slammed the company for its “toxic and destructive” culture and treatment of its customers.

So what sets employees on that negative path? According to the study authors, the key dimensions of the employee experience are ‘organisational justice’ and ‘abusive supervision’:

“When employees who feel they have been treated unfairly by their organisation or abused by their boss quit their job, they appear to choose more destructive resignation styles than those who perceive higher levels of organisational justice or who have not been abused by their manager.”

There’s nothing surprising there – but justified or not in their pointed farewell gestures, employees should also be aware of the findings of another recent study by international staffing agency OfficeTeam.

In interviewing more than 600 HR managers, OfficeTeam found that nearly nine in 10 (86%) said the way employees quit a job affects their future career opportunities – 33% said it “greatly affects” future prospects. So it could definitely pay to take a good long look before you leap off the burning bridge.

“Doing a great job when you start a new role is expected,” OfficeTeam executive director, Robert Hosking, suggested. “Doing a great job as you leave cements your reputation for professionalism.”

That said, the OfficeTeam survey found some fine examples of unusual resignations that demand recognition:

  • “An employee baked a cake with her resignation letter written on top” (presumably this qualifies as a ‘grateful goodbye’)
  • “The worker threw a brick through the window with the words ‘I quit’ written on it” (definitely ‘bridge burning’)
  • “A marching band accompanied one employee in his announcement(perhaps ‘avoidant’ in that it would certainly have provided a distraction, and safety in numbers)
  • “The employee said she was stepping out to buy new boots, but was never seen again” (a rather ‘impulsive’ example of ‘avoidance’)
  • The internet-famed ‘I Quit’ video in which the employee of a media company recorded her resignation via an interpretive dance filmed to the strains of Kanye West’s ‘Gone’ (avoidant, impulsive, bridge burning – this one’s got it all)

Have you ever departed a job in acrimonious circumstances? Or have you been on the receiving end of a negative resignation style? Please share your experiences and start a conversation by leaving a comment below.

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Graham Turner is the former Editor of Ai Group's Industry magazine, which ceased publication in 2014. He now edits (and moderates) this Blog, together with Ai Group's weekly Email newsletter.

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