Is It Time to Resign?

Advice on identifying when it’s time to jump ship and look for better career opportunities

Long gone are the days when many workers remained at one company through their retirement years. The job market has changed greatly since then, with many professionals taking a more hands-on approach to their career development, including changing jobs more frequently. For today’s working class, the reasons for jumping ship can vary -- from advancing your career to leaving a bad boss to needing better pay.

If you’re on the fence about whether to stay or go, how can you determine whether a job change is the right move?

Here are seven workplace situations based on real-life professionals I’ve helped through the years. In these cases, leaving their current employer for greener pastures was the best option.

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You’re Invisible

The situation: Patrick worked at his job for more than four years, spending many extra hours and full weekends in the office and slowly realizing that his manager barely knew he was there. One time, he flew back from a family vacation early to attend to an urgent matter, and when he saw his manager in the hallway after the crisis was averted, his manager said, “Tell Samantha she did a great job on that project.” Patrick, forced to assert himself, said: “Actually I handled that situation -- I was on vacation and came back early to do it.” His boss responded by saying, “Tell Samantha she was smart to call you.”

What to do: When your relationship with your boss amounts to a Chinese water torture of such slights, it’s safe to assume you’ve become invisible to him. Can you turn that sort of situation around? Maybe, but at a certain point you will likely conclude that pushing the same rock uphill for years is not the best use of your time -- or talent.

You’re Being Taken for Granted

The situation: Jeff made cost-saving suggestions at his job, and his boss implemented them with no thanks. Jeff worked evenings and weekends with no pay raises for three consecutive years. When the company brought in two consultants to get a new product design finished, Jeff was put in charge of training them, adding hours to his workday. None of his efforts earned him any acknowledgement.

One day, Jeff got a call from his manager, who said: “Can you please come into my office right now,?” Alarmed, Jeff ran down the hall. His manager said, “I’m very concerned about this item on your expense report.” It was a $32 charge for coffee and croissants for six people. “Remember, I took the consultants and the sales guys out for coffee last week?” Jeff responded. “Oh, that’s right,” his manager said. “Okay, no problem.” At that point, Jeff got the message loud and clear: His monumental efforts on the company’s behalf aren’t worthy of comment, but a $32 coffee expense could put his job at risk. He decided to bail.

What to do: Jeff’s situation is obviously an extreme one, where the only logical choice was to leave. In a less-trying circumstance, however, where your contributions aren’t exactly garnering huge thanks but your manager isn’t totally obnoxious, you can bring up the subject tactfully:

“Stan,” you might say, “I want to make sure that I’m focusing on the things that are important to you.” “Why do you bring that up, Jeff?” your manager might ask. “I’m curious because I’ve been making the Web site upgrade a high priority and revamping the sales reports that we talked about at my quarterly review. I just want to make sure those things are still high on your radar,” you might say. “I hadn’t heard from you about the Web site improvements or the reports I left you, and that made me wonder whether there was a shift in priorities that I missed along the way.” A manager with a reasonable amount of emotional intelligence will get your drift. If that doesn’t happen, your future may lie elsewhere.

Your Boss is Verbally Abusive

The situation: A friend of mine, Elisabeth, had a boss named Peg: “One night, when everyone else had gone home, Peg and I were working on the sales territory assignments,” Elisabeth says. “Peg got upset with something I’d done and just laid into me for forty minutes straight. She was red-faced, sweating and swearing up a storm. At the end of her tirade, I asked Peg, ‘Would you like me to resign?’ and she responded, ‘No, that was a pep talk.’”

What to do: There should be zero tolerance for bullying bosses who think nothing of verbally thrashing a team member. If your boss views you as a whipping post, it’s time to leave.

You’ve Hit the Glass Ceiling

The situation: Carolyn was hired as an administrative assistant in her first job after college. A year later, she’d engineered an office move (hiring and managing contractors, moving 60 people across town and handling all the logistics) and purchased a new phone system. She finally decided to speak with her manager about the possibility of being promoted to a more lucrative and responsible position because the company obviously needed her skills. Her manager turned her down flat: “If there were a position to be filled, I would have posted it.”

What to do: If there’s no room for advancement in your job and you’re keen to keep moving in your career, your path is clear. If you don’t move to a new employer where your horizons can broaden, you’ll stay fixed in place and damage your resume as your career stagnates. There are plenty of employers who need people like you to build their businesses.

Your Job Just Doesn’t Fit Anymore

The situation: I was a young human resources manager in Chicago, working lots of late nights and often chatted with John, the night security guard. One day, he came and sat down in my office: “You know, you’re a good HR person,” he said. “You make people want to come and work here, and you keep a lot of them on board when they’re thinking about leaving.” “Thank you,” I replied. “The thing is, there are way better companies to work for,” he continued. “This company doesn’t really value its employees, as you know. Why not go someplace where you can feel great about recruiting people and you won’t have to spend so much energy keeping them from quitting?”

What to do: In my particular situation, where the systemic and cultural habits -- many of them bad -- were status quo, it was clear what I had to do: I left. John helped me realize that sometimes the employee/employer fit just isn’t there, or that what once had worked was no longer what I needed to move forward in my career. It’s at this point that you must make an executive decision to take control of your career path and do what’s necessary to continue moving up the corporate ladder.

You’re No Longer Challenged

The situation: Julie was a senior graphic designer for a small Web design firm. She ran the creative side of the business, designing Web sites, holding clients’ hands and running interference between the programmers and owners. “Do you love your job?” I asked her. “I love what it could be -- in a different universe,” she responded. “The vision for this company just isn’t big enough. I have so much more to offer.” Just as Julie was considering a move, a headhunter contacted her about a new employer coming to town that was looking for a creative director to run 60 Web sites and all of the firm’s interactive marketing. She immediately jumped at the opportunity. “I use so much more of my brain now,” she later told me.

What to do: If you wonder whether your current job is challenging you enough and helping you grow, here are three ways to determine if a job search should be in your very near future:

1. You should have three or four new resume bullets -- accomplishments, not tasks -- to add to your history every year. If you’ve just spent a year doing exactly what you’ve always done on the job, you are not moving forward.

2. You should be cultivating a subject-matter expertise and becoming your department’s (or company’s) authority on at least one topic. If that isn’t happening in a visible way, you may not be being stretched as much as you should be.

3. You should be energized about your work. Is your work stimulating you intellectually? If you’re not excited to tell people that you meet at dinner parties and soccer games about what you do, it’s time to jump ship.

Your True Passion Is Calling

The situation: Brian had an environmental engineering degree and huge credentials in his field. He designed waste-water treatment plants and installed massive environmental programs for government clients. Brian was also interested in spirituality and metaphysics, but he never thought of it as a career path. Then one day, he did: “I realized that the same principles I used to design recycling facilities could be used to build and market holistic healing and spiritual programs,” he said. Brian decided to change his career path completely and became the marketing director for a Buddhist conference center.

What to do: When it becomes clear that your true passion lies elsewhere, consider launching a stealth job search. That’s an under-the-radar job search you begin while you’re still employed. What does it entail? Once you have decided on your new direction, get your resume in order and start making overtures to potential employers. Do not apply to blind ads (the ones where the employer isn’t identified), attend job fairs or make your job-hunting status widely known (especially on your LinkedIn profile).

Liz Ryan
Contributing Columnist,