Quitting your job? Here's how not to do it
He deleted most of the source code – the little @£$%%...
You can't take it with you...
There is a tradition of “off-site backups” for handy bits of code and data that you’ve worked with at your current employer. At most firms you could fit every line of source code together with a complete customer list on the free USB stick you got at a conference. This is a really dumb thing to do. Many firms now lock their USBs and so when you see an open one you have to ask yourself: is it sloppy security or a trap?
The “trap” element is partly driven by employment law. There is a daft charade in EU countries where your job is declared “at risk” before you are made redundant, usually leaving you at your desk with more yesterdays than tomorrows. They are going to have to pay you off and that can be real money so if you’re dumb enough to copy data when they’re expecting you to do it, you really deserve what is coming to you, including losing that payoff. Or as a Goldman Sachs programmer found out last year, this can mean sitting in jail, while the courts decide whether you've committed a crime or not.
As a Reg reader, you’ll have worked out that this applies to printing and FTP as well. It nearly applies to social networks, since although systems exist to monitor traffic, most companies haven’t installed them yet.
Don’t trust verbal offers
In the good old days (2006) a verbal job offer was good enough for you to quit, but now more people have to sign off the headcount and they are more likely to refuse. That means you should never give notice until you have a written job offer. In itself that is actually almost worthless, since if they renege then your legal position is not likely to get you more than the notice period they would have to pay if they fired you on your first day – and even that is far from guaranteed. However a written offer from HR means that the process has been completed. Marks & Spencer reneged on offers it made to a bunch of people years ago and it still gets talked about, so HRs try really hard to stop offers going out until they are kosher, but before then trust no one, especially recruiters.
Just because they are usually enforceable, doesn’t mean you have to work them. If your manager is smart he will know that a motivated employee for six weeks is vastly more useful than a strag who grudgingly puts in face time for three months and given that discontent is contagious he doesn’t want others following you.
The trick is to review the work you’ve been doing to spot things that need to be done by you personally before leaving and separate them from things that can’t be done by then. Take the initiative by presenting this timescale having added time for a proper handover to get the time you can present to your boss for departing, say that you’ll do these things properly and go. Sweeten the deal by promising not to encourage the others to leave, with the polite but implicit threat that he can choose easy or hard.
The handover process is also a good place to leave hooks to bring you back for occasional days when the value of your experience is worth more than a day’s paid holiday from your next employer. What may not be intuitive is that the better the handover, the more likely this work will materialise, since a good handover shows that you were doing a lot of things for the company and that you did them professionally. Since you’re being paid to do the handover anyway, ensuring a smooth handover helps you get a better reference.
Good references are always useful, but if your boss puts in writing that someone is crap then the person can sue with a decent chance of winning if it is not provably true. My favourite case of this was the huge investment bank that gave a true but very negative reference. Sadly they gave it for the wrong person, costing the ex-employee his new job and the bank serious money. That’s why if you’ve ever bothered to read your employment contract, you’ll probably find yourself forbidden to give any references, requiring you to leave it to HR, who will write the very briefest reference they can.
Of course there is the verbal reference which your boss will usually be willing to give and that part of the dark art of recruitment is trying to read between the lines when they want to say bad things but don’t want to cause trouble. Managers are extremely reluctant to say really bad things, even when in a couple of cases the candidate has told me that their role ended basically with them shouting “Screw you!” and walking out. So there are pregnant pauses, odd intonations on answers. It has to be said that a manager who flatly refuses to talk about you sends a very negative signal.
You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave
This cuts both ways. I hired a network manager out of ICL/Fujitsu in spite of my opinion of the firm – because he’d actually kept calm and achieved things in spite of the environment. I needed someone like that and was prepared to overlook his having the oddest reference of anyone I’d ever heard. He flatly refused to give a referee since when he’d told his boss, she’d actually broken down and cried, not because she was a girlie, but because anyone else would have been crushed by that project. Some managers get even more emotional, treating you like you’ve slept with their sister, especially if you’re going to a competitor. It’s dumb to shout at a deserter but that doesn’t stop it, or even make it very rare.
You might be expecting them to realise they can’t live without you and upgrade your pay and conditions; this is a risky bet in the current market but it can pay off. One thing your employer might already know is that around 60 per cent of buybacks leave in a year anyway, so you have to try to price a year of your services when working out what to demand.
One reason for buybacks either failing immediately or just ending up buying you a little time is that the reasons you want to leave rarely change: they underpaid you because they did not value your work highly enough; your boss is an arse because of his childhood; the obsolete tech is irritating but there’s no budget for a complete upgrade; the training budget is £3.75; and any other number of irritants that won’t go away.
Buybacks can generate serious bad feelings and your employer may try to claw back the pay by cutting your bonus next year and refusing requests for training or even refusing to upgrade the software you use to be more productive. That’s not rational, is it? But unfortunately it's not as rare as it should be – if firms managed their staff rationally I would have to get a proper job.
If you’re playing the buyback game, be aware that your boss is in a tricky position, since he has to argue for more money, so you have to arm him with things he can use, in this case the antiquity of your tech environment can actually work for you, since the more “customised” the system is, the harder it is to get someone off the street to take over. He also needs a hard number: he will be asked what it will take to keep you and will want to be really sure that if he gets that you will stay. When the whole network team in one of my projects quit, it actually helped me because I’d warned (in writing) that we’d gone past the point of just saving money and some lucky recruiter had found a good team who were only to happy to move. We outbid Bloomberg of course, but preparation and getting a hard number from each party made me look good.
Your evil ex-boss is actually a nice guy
As I mentioned in a previous article, slagging off your previous employer always worries interviewers, so no matter how awful their criteria for choosing you to be shafted because the marketing people were incompetent, you need to talk what you achieved and learned there because as a headhunter I will share that. Often a good percentage of the reason they are interviewing you is the brand of your last firm, so sharing its failures makes them think that decision was wrong.
Another reason to try to leave on good terms is that downsizing a group is a lot harder than building it up, and so it’s very likely they find that they’ve fired everyone who knows how to do some obscure but vital task. You don’t know how long it will take you to get a new job, so leave the door open for a few days at contractor rates.
Getting rebound work
This requires some subtlety. One of my earliest employers had ditched all its programmers as it desperately tried to keep afloat, hiring a green newish graduate (me) to replace a dozen who had built the system. The source code was still there, the makefiles weren’t. There were anywhere between five and 20 versions of each file with no apparent structure for how I might fit them back together. It was pretty clear that these critical files had been “lost” when the developers found out that they were being shafted but the salespeople “who bring the money in” weren’t. So when my boss got a call offering “consultancy” on that, the ex-programmer got very short shrift.
Finally you have to remember that the world is a surprisingly small space, made smaller by the particular industry and technology you work with. It may be satisfying to get revenge for the broken promises and hassle that caused you to leave, but my advice is that money is the best revenge. ®
Dominic Connor is a City headhunter a t QF Search with a sideline in teaching C++ to bankers.