To Burn or Not to Burn? (a question of bridges)

Early on in my career, I had one of those proud/not-so-proud moments (depending on how you look at it) while working for a small company as an “office manager” – you know, that all-inclusive title that pretty much means you have no authority but all the blame.  I dropped an F-bomb on the owner’s wife.  [It’s a long story, but basically she accused me of not caring enough about the job. Because I didn’t respond to her request in 3 seconds.  But I digress.]

I believe the exact phrase I used was, “F*** you and f*** this job.”  I grabbed my phone and my purse and made my dramatic exit.

After walking away from the building, the reality of what happened hit me and I called my husband and said, “I think I just quit my job.”  The thing was, I couldn’t afford to quit my job.  So…I turned around and went back to the office to figure it out.   So much for leaving in a blaze of glory.

Luckily, the owner’s wife apologized first, then I apologized, and we made it work until I moved on to complete my student teaching.  Despite the time that has past, I’ve never forgotten that moment, thinking back to it with a certain wistfulness every time I’ve moved on from a company.  But I have never reenacted that moment because I know there would be consequences.

man lighting fuse

Before you decide to lay waste to the past and leave in a dramatic fashion (like these extreme quitters), decide if it’s worth it by answering these questions:

  • Will I need a reference from anyone at this company?
    Obviously you would only select “friendly” references.  But any recruiter worth their salt will do what they can to find backdoor references – folks NOT on your friendly list – because they want the real scoop.  Those are the people you need to be thinking about.
  • Did I gain a significant amount of experience at this company that I will need to be able to refer to in the future?
    A job you had for a month or two might be okay to leave off the ol’ resume.  But what if you were there for 2 years?  Or 5 years? Or 15?  You’re going to need to be able to use that experience to sell your skills to a future employer.
  • Is it possible I may want to return to this company?
    Sean Connery claimed he would NEVER play James Bond again…and then came back to make, you guessed it, Never Say Never Again.  I get tough work environments, burn out, impossible bosses, etc.  The reality is that people move on, circumstances change, and time lends perspective.  Don’t risk future opportunity to for short-term satisfaction.
  • How small is my industry’s world?
    This is particularly important if you have a niche skill set – IT, legal, and yes, even instructional design, can fall into this arena.  Word of your behavior will get out.  And with social media, the range will be even further than you think.  If there’s a chance your exit may reflect poorly on you if told to a potential future employer, it’s a BAD idea to burn that bridge.
  • Am I an adult?
    Seriously, are you?  A true professional tries to address the issues at hand, and if that doesn’t work, he or she leaves like an adult human being rather than a 2-year-old or viral video wannabe.  Yes, it’s really entertaining to watch the videos of extreme quitters, and we all live vicariously through their efforts.  But what did it really change in those companies?  And where are those people today?  A few people did turn their moment of fame into a career, but most probably traded a moment of triumph for a professional lifetime of explaining away that YouTube clip.

There are times when burning bridges might make sense (companies engaging in illegal activities come to mind).  The point is, only you can make that choice – so make it a good one.

If you decide it’s totally worth it – go for it!  And please, film it so we can enjoy it, too.

Do you have story of a burned bridge to share?  Are there times when it DOES make sense to burn a bridge?  Let me know in the comments!

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