When to say those three little words: 'I am quitting'
Ruthless headhunter also dispenses tips on when NOT to
Feature My despair as El Reg's resident job expert is that you people sometimes can’t even follow basic simple advice. For example, when I wrote about pay cuts, some arts grad commented that he’d immediately quit.
I shall type this slowly so you understand: You... quit... when... it... suits... you. Not out of spite, not for revenge, not out of fear, but in as smooth and rational a transition as you can muster.
Quitting has a cost
Employers are wary of job-hoppers and if you’ve not been in this role very long, it can look bad - not to mention the fact that every time you change jobs there is a risk of making a catastrophic mistake. So, however bad things are at present, remember that you can only quit this job once and you need to get the best price you can.
The stupidest form of quitting is when you don’t have a job lined up, regardless of how hot the market for your skills seems to be, because you will find it a lot colder very quickly. It also raises all sorts of red flags about your motives or even your sanity.
Employers' fear of being sued means that references are of little use to businesses trying to spot rogue employees. After all, why should your firm risk expensive legal issues to warn a competitor off a dodgy employee? Odds are that your employment contract explicitly forbids you from giving any sort of reference for exactly that reason.
That leaves HR with little data to spot rogue IT pros, so they focus obsessively on what they can see. For example, they'll often interpret “resigned with no job to go to” as “was told I could quit or be fired”. That’s not fair, I know, but it’s my job to tell you it like it is, not make it fair.
Even if you have a job offer, don’t quit
The recession means that the headcount is more ruthlessly managed than last time you were on the market and the process of hiring is fragile by design. That means some firms are reneging on job offers and your legal protection in this context is close to zero. According to my $1k per hour Reassuringly Expensive Lawyer(TM), the best you can hope for is being paid your notice period as if they’d fired you on your first day. The odds are against you getting anything at all. That leaves you in the lurch with no job and to make it worse, HR at other firms will wonder aloud whether your new employer dropped you because they found out something bad.
But the reason you absolutely must get the written job offer from HR is that it means that all the internal processes have been carried out. Because we’re in interesting times, the number of people who need to sign off on headcount is greater, and the gatekeepers to that are HR. This means that unless HR are prepared to put it in writing, it has no more value to you than a chat over one too many beers.
As recruiters get paid only when you start, it should not shock you that they will start hassling you to quit your old job pretty much as soon as the hiring manager expresses a vague sentiment that maybe you’re the one they want to hire. That’s their job so there’s no point arguing with them any more than the guy in the fake police outfit your council has paid to give you a parking ticket. Don't be swayed.
If your team has been gutted by defections, it is tempting to follow them. But although it’s rational to prep your CV and start talking to agents (slowly, using short words), you need to work out how much they fear you leaving. The way they pay and treat you is best predicted by the fear factor and ironically the worse they’ve been treating you, the better your new negotiating position. If they are just being shit rather than not needing your team anymore they will want to keep you on board and being the only person who understands critical parts of the system can be made to work to your advantage.
This works best when you have another job you can take if they don’t offer what you want, and be clear that you have to explicitly ask for observable changes in money, work, etc since they will usually not offer them upfront. In these sort of negotiations, phrases like “you’ll be taken care of at bonus time”, or “this will be taken into account” are patronising attempts to give you nothing. The group usually reached this point through mismanagement. You will need to plan for your attempts to strike a reasonable bargain to fail, which is another reason to do this particular negotiation with your old employer after you’ve got an offer.
So when should you start looking for the eject button?
Once you have that job offer, the first reason to press the red button on your old job is evidence of a failure in integrity. The best courses on leadership push the idea that you must be trustworthy both to those above and below. I suspect this surprises you because I did say the “best”, not the ones your bosses went on - which was actually an excuse to get drunk, sexually harass the lone female manager in your group, give up and get pissed after playing golf. Bluntly, they will lie about changes in the way things work and unless the pay rise is immediate and in writing, it is best to assume that it doesn’t exist.
Of course your manager may not have broken his word because he is a bad person, but rather because he’s politically weak. Which is often worse. The very first thing you should do when your boss quits is to ask if there are any jobs going at the new gig and that’s not just because he has found a better work environment and money. Managers often quit for structural reasons that show your firm or group is heading for rough seas.
Even before he quits, the quality of your life is pathetically dependent upon the political clout of your boss. This extends all the way from the kinds of work your group gets to do, to the training budget, whether you have a big enough team to do the job properly without murderous hours and, of course, how much you are paid to do it. Often working for a powerful bastard is much more pleasant than grafting for a good guy who is coming last.
Also, whoever replaces your boss will often bring his favourites with him and any commitment and goodwill you built up with your old boss is then gone without a trace. You will often antagonise the new broom by bringing them up and that’s even before the new leadership decides to “shake things up”, which is often the reason why they were chosen by the powers that be. This can of course be good, but you need a backup plan since good/bad is 50:50.
Your team are scum
In my OS/2 article I shared how a team member was so outraged by my comment that he hit me, which might be taken as evidence that I didn’t have the best time. Nothing could be more false. The IBMers were smart and the so were the contractors - albeit with occasional highly entertaining personalities.
The worst teams I’ve been in weren’t the ones where we argued, because most heated discussions happened because we really cared about doing the job right. The bad times came when colleagues were neither motivated nor smart and it grated on me and bogged down my career. The fact is that over your career you learn more useful stuff from your team than on any courses, including your degree. So being the most clued-up guy on the team may be good for the ego, but is bad for your career. By all means milk that position for a while, but unless there’s a good reason to stay, you need to find somewhere else to learn. Otherwise, as I found to my cost, your tech is out of fashion and you have to move diagonally to somewhere your skills aren’t just a bit dated, but the butt of jokes.
Hitting a plateau
When helping people to choose between two job offers, the process I’ve perfected is looking at what jobs this job will help them get next time. Basically how it will move them forward when they quit the job they haven’t even started yet. Some see this as confirmation of the gimlet-eyed cynicism they expect from a City headhunter, for which I am flattered, because to assume that you will stay in this job indefinitely is a sure route to uncomfortable transitions in the directed acyclic graph of your career. Too often, I am brought into this process too late. You need to be thinking about how your current work moves you forward before you even start looking for a new job.
As IT pros we are walking up the down escalator. The tech changes, the value of any skill changes with fashion and the trajectory is nearly always downwards. Since the people in your team are on the same step of the escalator, it may look like you’re staying on the level, but usually it means that you’re going down together. That means working on the latest version matters more than many IT pros think, as does understanding whatever business you are in.
For example, it may be rational for the firm to have stayed using Visual Basic 6 on Windows XP because this stuff is stable and you’ve got 700 man-years of business-critical code on it, but one day, sooner than you think, they will decide that they are “legacy” and do the new cool stuff on Hadoop with MongoDB and you will dumped without a second thought with minimal redundancy.
That means you need to build an exit plan when your firm drifts back from the leading edge, either by elbowing your way onto the Big Data project or by quietly building up other more modern skills in your own time so that you can leave before you become a legacy.
A useful signal is how receptive they are to your requests to move to the sexy new stuff, or to learn more about the business. I delude myself that I’m a competent manager and if a valued member of my team says he’d like to do something that’s not within his normal scope, I’d usually let him, simply because I want to keep him happy as well as knowing that he’ll be more motivated. If your boss flatly refuses, then he’s crap or thinks you are, or both, different signals that actually mean the same thing.
Working for aliens
You can’t expect to get every promotion going, but the sort of people who get promotions around the firm has a high signal/noise ratio. It may be more irritating that they promoted a guy who is just like you but (in your unbiased opinion) is less competent, but it is a positive sign that people like you are moving up the greasy pole. That’s not just in skill base but also personality, the business area you work in, age and of course sex. The worst case is where HR is able to pursue a diversity agenda, ie, which often translates as promoting white middle class women, because apparently this balances those places that only promote men. Either way, the less those promoted are like you, the sooner you have to go.
Jumping and pushing
Contrary to what you think, very few managers actually get a kick from firing people, partly because it makes them feel bad, partly because HR will make them jump through hoops to make sure you don’t sue them and of course their empire is reduced and it looks bad to the rest of the management team.
So some resort to “encouraging” you to leave, especially if you have TUPE rights after being outsourced, where getting rid of you is more messy. Perhaps you are crap, or at least thought to be so. It is hard to work out exactly how much of the hassle you get is bad management or “encouragement”, but a clear sign is an increase in the formality of the way your work is assigned, in emails or even bits of paper, rather than simply being asked.
One of the things I'd have loved to dig up for the purpose of writing this article is the handbook of phrases used by outsourcers when your employment is transferred to them. Clearly, there is only one, because the lies they emit seem always to be read off the same script. Talk of “new opportunities”, “focus on delivery”, “a broader horizon in our new family” (yes, really) etc are simply ploys to delay your departure until they can suck out your knowledge of your local system setups and procedures.
You should of course pay lip service to the new order and even give the impression that you’re enthusiastic, but don’t kid yourself that you are anything other than a cost to be minimised. However, between the outsourcing and your departure you can exact revenge. Your new employer may want to cut costs, but at the same time they have bid for the work below cost and want to find things outside the project that they can gouge from your former employer since they no longer have the ability to do it themselves. As my former boss told me: “Money is the best revenge”, and if you avenge yourself well enough, the outsourcer may actually deliver on the promises they made at the start.
Relations with your boss
Obviously, if your boss is crap then you need to start looking elsewhere. He's attained that status because the higher-ups like him, or at least think he gets things done and has some political skills. That means complaining about him is largely pointless, and even harassment and bullying are unlikely to be enough to get anything done. The HR director of a household name firm described their job to me as “protecting the management from the staff”, which is a hard-nosed view, but illustrates that however nice HR may seem, they work for the company, not you.
Quality of work
Although money is important, to get you out of bed in the morning requires more. One thing I’ve found over the years is that although people will bitch to their mates in the pub about the things they are asked to do and occasionally complain to their boss, this is after they’ve been assigned to a task, when it’s too late to get moved onto something better.
“Better” is a subjective term, learning a new skill is definitely good, but dull if you’ve done it before, so you need to ask for the good work and as above if you keep not getting it, then look for the eject handle.
To get things done, it is necessary to reallocate people to lesser posts in other projects and this is nothing personal. It's often so impersonal that it comes out of MS Project and the first your boss knows of it is when it tells him to move you. Flatter management structures mean that formal recognition of the fact that you effectively ran a team, but are now on your own doodling T-SQL isn’t so easily defended and since “ran a team” on your CV needs to be reasonably current when you go for your next job which has a better title, then you need to start looking sooner rather than later.
Leaving with style
A graceful departure is a lot better than the short-term excitement of a table-banging exit. Firstly, they may be tempted to break company policy and give a bad reference which can be very painful if it causes your new employer to withdraw their offer, since spinning this to the employer you need now to find very quickly is not at all easy. Also, the world is a lot smaller than you might think and a bad word from one manager to another as an “informal” reference may come back to haunt you.
You also want to leave the door open for them to buy you back with more more or better treatment which can sometimes be very lucrative, if somewhat stressful. Recruiters of course hate buybacks, since it takes the food from our children's mouths just as we’ve done all the work and it makes us look bad to the client as well. But it’s not your job to keep me happy, I already have people to do that.
The standard figure is what they offer to persuade you to stay buys them a year. This can be all they need but ultimately the structural reasons for you wanting to go will remain: they didn’t raise your pay before because they don’t care about technical skills and the senior arsehole who thinks a mix of David Brent and Sun Tsu is a valid management style isn’t going to get a personality implant.
So finally coming back to the “What do I do if they cut my pay?” I started with: you want either to be at the start of the exit queue or the end. These are both valid strategies. Getting out quickly means you take more risks in the job you're moving to, but you aren’t trapped in a death spiral, while waiting to the last moment means you can hold them to ransom when they realise they need you. ®
After a wide-ranging career in City IT, Dominic Connor is now a City headhunter and you can connect to him here