When & How To Quit
Recognizing Signs of a Toxic Work Environment, Prepping for your Resignation, and Life After the Pink Slip
Whether you work for a small company or a global corporation, it's a harsh reality of the workplace. People are let go for a multitude of reasons. From decreases in sales to decreases in performance, or even something embarrassing that happened at the office Christmas Party that shall never be mentioned again. When I was laid off, it came as a shock. While I didn't feel as if I was fitting in at the company, I felt certain I would have at least some security because I kept my ear to the ground, put in the hours and then some, and always made myself available to take on more projects or assist co-workers with theirs. I became a "Yes-girl." I kept my feelings to myself (or so I thought) despite the toll the stress was taking on my mental health and personal relationships, bottling everything up and opening the floodgate at the Happy Hours with friends outside the office.
All the signs were there that it wasn't working out and I was too stubborn to admit it. I refused to be a quitter and it took me a long time to admit that the job I had wasn't helping me advance my career (and my life in general) forward. It was my first job out of college. The minute I was handed my Bachelor's degree, my first thought was "Now what?"
The transfer from the academic life to the professional workplace is a difficult one, learned only from experience and not available in the classroom. So in short, I made countless mistakes. That ended in near panic attacks or me fighting the urge to hide under the desk in my cubicle, my face beet red. With student loans to pay off, I endured and I persevered. Determined to learn as much as I could from my colleagues. But little did I know that the mistakes I made when managing projects and paperwork left impressions on my managers—first impressions that are not so easily disregarded.
As the months went by and the company grew, the department I worked in was expanding. Sales were through the roof. Our resources were maxed and we were constantly busy. So it made sense that they were adding new hires to the team. What I failed to notice then was that they were hiring people with years of prior experience in the field, while I was the newb who came in with no experience and was trained on the job. Even though I got along with them just fine as colleagues, the experience they brought with them raised our managers' standards across the board and left me in the dust. It didn't take me long to realize that in the eyes of our managers, I was incompetent.
I pushed myself, stressed myself, and nearly drove myself insane. I partnered with my team members on projects, asked them for advice whenever I hit a roadblock. They seemed to sense this about me, and I learned later the managers were talking about me when I wasn't around. A few of my colleagues stepped in and tried to help, but sometimes their advice seemed rather juvenile and repetitive. It became clear to me that they thought the same thing of me as well and I began to dread going into work every day and facing them. I was an embarrassed rack of nerves and drove myself crazy trying to catch up to them and meet them at their level. I learned the hard way that it's near impossible to catch up to ten years worth of experience in a span of six months.
Then there was the hobby. Yes, I have a hobby, or as I should put it, a de-stressing mechanism that I have used since junior high in order to cope with the horrors and frustrations of reality. I write. Sometimes I tell stories, but most of the time I just dot down passing thoughts or need to knows. It's a habit, sometimes a compulsion. As a result, I always have a notebook filled with relatively incoherent ramblings and a pen with me. In the office, I kept a notebook on my desk at all time. Sometimes, I would keep a Word Doc open if the setting differed.
During a semi-monthly touch base meetings, one of my managers brought this up, addressing it as an issue. I was floored by this revelation. Maybe it was because my Degree was in English/Literature, maybe they were suspicious of the extra Word Docs on my computer and assumed they were distracting me from my actual work. However, nearly everyone had a notebook or notepad with them and I failed to see how my little sentence drabbles were any different from doodling or browsing a preferred social media site for a few minutes to decompress before moving onto the next task, which my other colleagues did regularly.
After that, I felt like I was being watched, like I was walking on eggshells the minute I walked into the office every morning. Everything I did would be used against me. Then at a company meeting, for one reason or another, they mentioned one employee from a different apartment that made amateur films on the weekends. The tone was far more congratulatory.
Perplexed, I was furious that one person was commended for his hobby while I was criticized. It was only mentioning this to a few non-work acquaintances that I learned criticisms like this are tell-tale signs your employers have it out for you. One young man recounted how his manager criticixed his choice of shoes as being inappropriate for work even though a colleague who wore a very similar pair received none. Another friend was let go from his job because he ate some food that was intended to be thrown away. It doesn't matter how petty their criticism is, but it's a red flag for you and the employer that the relationship is about to come to an end.
A longtime friend noticed the bundled wreck I had become since that conversation with my manager. All my stress was work-related, so she only had two bits of advice: Go see a therapist or quit.
It took a few cocktails for me to admit it, but it was time to quit. I was drinking too much and fantasizing too much about what I would or could be doing if I didn't have this job. But things were different than when I was hired. I now had rent, a car payment, and a pet in addition to my student loans. I couldn't just walk in the next day and hand in my resignation. I needed a plan, one that didn't end with me moving back in with my parents or going further into debt.
I started saving. I cut back on unnecessary expenses. I went out less and drank less. I beefed up my resume and was already floating it to other companies with open positions. After talking it over with very good friends, the best strategy was to have either another job lined up right away or three to five months worth of bills saved up for the job hunt.
The plan was set. Everything was laid out perfectly. It seemed a burden had been lifted off my shoulders, seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. Just two or three more months and this chapter on my life would be closed for good.
An email showed up in my inbox one morning. One of the managers requesting a meeting and I agreed. I arrived early the morning of the meeting and went about my normal business. I had emails drafted on my computer screen, ready to be sent out to vendors. I walked into the conference room just in time for the meeting and stopped at the threshold of the door, realizing one of the ladies from HR was there and I knew what it meant.
The perfectly laid plan I had was shattered to smithereens. I received a modest severance payment, but it was nowhere near the amount I needed. I was traumatized and spent the next three days shaking in disbelief, getting out of bed at the usual time to get ready for work only to stop myself in front of the bathroom mirror, realizing that I didn't have a job to go to.
The signs were there. Sales were down and they were overstaffed. They had already let someone else from my department go, but it was someone I almost never worked with and rarely saw, even in passing. So I didn't think anything of it. I showed up on time and I worked hard, thinking my work ethic and the hours I put in would be enough to guarantee job security until I decided otherwise. Yet, I was proven wrong.
The job hunt continued, this time at full throttle. I re-edited my resume, re-formatted it to a more professional template, and submitted it for a free critique. I researched formulas for cover letters and drafted many for all different positions. Only now I was faced with what seemed to be the most haunting and dreadful of all interview questions: "Why were you let go?"
I found myself rehearsing the answer in my head for hours. The tone of my answers ranged from a boiling rage to an almost zen-like calm and clarity of, "We both knew it was time to move on."
In the end, after some trial and error with phone interviews. I learned the best answers were short and sweet, that is, without going on a rampage of how unfair it was you were let go. Even if it was unfair, keep in mind that the company in their mind was not in the wrong to terminate your employment. Demonizing them will not help your case for potential future employers.
All in all, it was a learning experience for me. If you're able to spin what you learned from whatever horrors endured, it can demonstrate growth and will make you a better employee for whatever future career or job you decide on.
It's been about six months since I was let go. While it took me several months for me to think and talk about what happened in a rational and logical manner. I've accepted it was all for the better. In hindsight, I should have left after my first year there. When they added on the new hires to the team, it became clear to me that for those other wonderful women that position was their career, and in a way, their passion. To me, it was just a job and at the time that was all I wanted as I figured the adulting thing out.
My advice, don't waste your time. Find a job that you can excel in and enjoy. Don't settle for the first gig that comes your way. Be reasonable but always shoot for something that suits you and helps move your life and career forward. In that, I sincerely wish everyone the best of luck.