Sunday, February 15, 2009

Anger Management

Not unreasonably, people sometimes leave their jobs because they are unhappy (usually with their boss). On the other hand, on many occasions, an employee changes jobs because it is simply in their best interest at that point to do so. Perhaps the company is not doing well, and they fear for their continued employment. Or there may have been a change in the employee's personal life – a marriage, say, or the arrival of a child – that necessitates a move. Or, perhaps the employee simply received a better offer from another company.

In that latter case, in my experience, an employee accepting an offer to work elsewhere doesn't simply acknowledge that their current employment no longer meets their needs. Instead, very often, he or she will work up a head of steam first. By the time they depart, they have crafted a laundry list of complaints, and are happy to share them with whoever asks. Indeed, listening to the litany of errors in judgment, unfair decisions, or lack of recognition experienced by the employee, one could hardly imagine how they could have stayed so long. Never mind that the employee was happy enough until the new offer came in.

I've seen this happen over and over again – in fact, I have been guilty of the same behavior myself – and I think I understand why. In your current position, you have friends, colleagues, perhaps even a boss you like, and you feel loyalty to these people. You've been compensated, of course, for your efforts, and the company has perhaps invested in your development through training, conferences, and promotions. In short, somewhere deep inside, you feel like you owe these people something, and that perhaps you are doing the wrong thing by walking out.

So, in order to rationalize your decision to leave, you develop a list of reasons why you shouldn't be staying in the first place. Like that raise last year that wasn't what it should have been, or that idea of yours that never got the attention it deserved. Somehow, it feels better to be leaving a situation that's wrong, than it does to move from a good situation to one that is even better. The former is something you need to do, while the latter feels more like something you just want to do.

Allow me, then, to set your minds at ease. It is acceptable and ethical to move into a new position when you feel it is a better fit for you for reasons personal, professional, or both. Unless you've entered into an agreement to the contrary, your burden of responsibility to your employer is limited to doing your job to the best of your ability, as long as you both choose to continue the arrangement. Most employment agreements are “at will,” meaning that you or your employer can choose to part ways at any time. Employers have good reason to structure the relationship in this way, but it works out for you as well: when you decide to go, you can simply go, with no further responsibility to your employer.

The reason I raise this issue is that I hope that if more people are aware of this tendency, they will attempt to avoid it (as employees) or defuse it (as managers). When I left my last position, I made a real effort (not always successful, admittedly) to make sure everybody understood the change was because I was reaching for something, not running from what I already had. My mantra was, “I love it here, but I need to move on, because this opportunity is unique and provides me with something I've been looking for.” My new job offered more money and more autonomy, and my boss and my colleagues understood that those were important to me, and my choice did not reflect in any way on how much I enjoyed my work with them.

As managers, we can help shape the tone of an employee's separation by understanding and respecting their decision. Generally, when employees have left my team, I have (usually) avoided trying to talk them out of it: I assume that adults are able to make decisions about their own lives. I want to show respect for their choice for many reasons, one of which is that I don't want them to feel the need to create that laundry list of complaints to counter my argument. I want us to part as colleagues who respect one another, and who shared a very positive work experience together. That not only makes me feel better, it also helps avoid situations in which the departing employee poisons the atmosphere during – and sometimes beyond – their notice period.

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