I was watching football on Sunday with a group of close friends, all of whom had read my new book, “I Hereby Resign,” which is a guide (no legalese, promise) for people considering leaving their job and for companies that hire from the competition, when a big debate broke out about whether an employee “has to give two weeks notice.” The argument began, first, because the game was awful and, second, because a couple of my friends noticed that, in my book, the resigning employee, both at the time of resigning and in the resignation letter, did not offer to stay for any period of time. Notwithstanding the fact that I have worked on this issue for almost 30 years, lecture on the subject at the Harvard Business School, and had just written an entire book revolving around resigning, my friends were adamant that giving notice was “implied” in every employment relationship and that not giving notice would unquestionably “destroy” any relationship between the departing employee and their company. Matters reached the point of a vote, and I lost. That’s what friends are for!
Resigning employees are not obligated to give notice, or put another way may properly resign effective immediately, unless they have an employment agreement that has what is creatively known as a “notice provision” (and there are plenty of such contracts in existence). Indeed, there are important reasons why an employee refuses to give notice. Take for example the revenue producer whose income is derived from sales. What would happen if she went to her manager to resign, said “I am willing to stay on for two weeks,” and the manager said “Ok, thank you, I want you to stay on”? Actually, what would happen if the manager accepted the notice offered, and then told the resigning employee to go home and stay at home for the next two weeks? I’ll tell you what would happen: the resigning employee would be forced to go home and, over the next two weeks, her revenue sources would be barraged by the company she is about to leave in an effort to get those revenue sources not to follow her to Next Company.
“But she will be able to defend herself and talk to folks about the next company, right”? Absolutely not. Although the employee is sitting at home, she is still an employee of the company and, therefore, must act in ways loyal to that company; e.g., she cannot talk to anyone about Next Company. Let’s as they say reverse engineer the moment. Begin with the universal notion that someone who works for Company “A” cannot go out, while working for Company A, and tell people they should take their business from Company A and deliver it to Company B. Safe to say that any such effort would be met with, shall we say, disdain by the leadership of Company A, right? What anyone who wants to give notice must understand, then, is that the act of resigning coupled with the giving of notice does NOT change anything as regards the question of telling revenue sources about Company B. You cannot.
Another reason why people resign effective immediately is because it’s actually impossible to determine what the “right” amount of notice is in any given situation. Do you stay for the completion of the project you are managing? Do you wait until the big deal on which you are working closes? Do you forgo joining the next company until your replacement is trained? No departure situation, unless again there is some contract term specifying how long notice must be, naturally lends itself to a fixed period. Add to that the notion that Next Company is waiting for your arrival and does not want to take any risk that you staying put for a while might result in you being convinced to take back your resignation. For such reasons, it is quite usual for there to be no time offered, since any time offered may well be deemed insufficient by both the “losing” company and the hiring company.
Trust me, I get the notion of “burning bridges”; however, unless you are one of an incredibly rare group –people who leave a company to go to a direct competitor and stay on good terms—that bridge is ashes the moment you write in your resignation letter, “I hereby resign.” I have handled thousands of resignations, directly and indirectly, and nothing done in that moment “helps” at the end of the day. Put bluntly, nothing you do or say or offer up can change the fact that you are about to join the competition and, in so doing, will inflict (if you are successful in the next place) real damage on your soon-to-be-former-company. For these reasons, I like to err on the side of a quick clean break. Moreover, just because you left doesn’t mean you cannot provide some help to the now-former company. I see, all the time, reach outs to former employees about such things as the location of a misplaced file or the name of the lead on a deal that is still in progress. (Just make sure you clear any assistance beyond something ministerial with your new company.)
So, my football team lost the game AND I lost the argument about giving notice. The football loss I can deal with; the bitterness generated by losing the argument over giving notice has not faded as quickly!