That Nasty Resignation Letter Can Make You Feel Great, Look Stupid, And Cost You Your Career

Jerry Maguire Agent

Photo: 6 Magazine

In the genre of self-destructive resignation letters, the past few years have included such remarkable specimens as the Whole Foods whiner and the L.A. Times staffer’s “f*ck you” kiss-off.Yet this morning’s New York Times introduces a whole new species to the form: the reality resignation letter.  

A now-very-ex-employee of Goldman Sachs bemoans the disappearance of teamwork and humility from his firm’s culture by… publishing a self-serving break-up letter in the nation’s paper of record.  

“How does my self-deprecating modesty look in this light?” we might imagine the author asking.

It is the leaked sex tape of resignation letters.  And Greg Smith takes his place with Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton by achieving his 15 seconds of famishness by screwing the very name that makes his act notorious.

Written with publication in mind, and timed for Resignation Day itself, this new twist in the field is innovative, strikingly original, and the most disastrous self-inflicted career implosion I have seen in my time in the career advice profession.

It’s understandable.  Humans aren’t built to take the stresses of conformity. We didn’t work in hierarchically organised super-units until the rise of the Industrial Revolution some two centuries ago.  With the exception of the church and the military, all of human history was free of the scourge of having to “go along to get along” in groups of a size larger than your extended family.

So we’ve been slow to get used to the burdens of sociability in big business concerns. And perhaps that’s why the resignation reprimand to one’s boss and company holds such appeal — it’s thrilling to put our censure, our righteousness, and our suffering out on public display.

Try this thought experiment: imagine opening up your email right now, hitting “new”, and writing an e-mail to your boss about the top seven things he’s doing wrong and should change.  Feel free to use as direct and abusive language as you would like.

After reason two or three, you’re probably smiling. After reason six, you’ll begin to feel like you’re just getting started, and that this could go on for hours.

Because adhering to the hierarchy in any organisation is stultifying and causes us to monitor our feelings, opinions, and behaviours, and then modify them according to the wishes of others, The organisation weighs down very heavily upon us.

Violating those same social rules feels good because it relives the pressure of professional conformity.

It’s the adolescent daydream: it’s getting back at our parents, subverting authority, and showing them once and for all who’s boss.

It’s also juvenile, self-destructive, and permanently harmful to your career.

Every future professional acquaintance will need to think about Greg Smith, or the Whole Foods guy, or the L.A. Times’ Dan Neil.

Future bosses will have to ask: will he betray me after we’re done?

Future clients will have to ask: will she be getting the best cooperation from her Rolodex? Will she keep our confidences?

Future employees will have to ask: can I trust the boss? Will others trust him? And what does that say about the wisdom of hitching my star to his wagon?

The recriminating resignation letter does nothing but bring your trustworthiness, judgment, and professionalism into question.  You should never send one.

I would, however, strongly encourage you to write it.

Here’s what you ought to do:

– Sit down, with paper and pen, and write the damning resignation letter your boss, your colleagues, and your customers deserve.  Do not write this on a computer where it could accidentally be sent or attached, and, please, especially, do not write this on your work laptop that you’ll be returning in a few days!

– Let each of the offenders of human decency and fairness know, in precise detail and savory language, the myriad ways in which they have failed themselves, disappointed you, and not lived up to the bare minimum of standards which their poor, woeful parents should have had the right to expect.

– Take that letter and put it in a safe drawer where it will not be exposed to sunlight.

– Go on vacation; do something you’ve never done before; visit mountains, lakes, cities or ruins that you’ve always pined for.  Get a new perspective on life and re-energize yourself.

– Return home, and remove your letter from its safe drawer.

– Burn it. And never, ever think of it again.

The process of writing down your feelings serves to get them out of you, where they’ll otherwise fester, and release you from the anger.  It’s called catharsis, and it allows you to purge, in a productive way, the bad feelings you’ve been left with by your long service under difficult circumstances.

You’ll feel better, you’ll have burned a letter and not your bridges, and your future career will be intact.

Because if you ever needed an example of self-immolation by short-sighted stupidity, Greg Smith’s letter is all you’ll need.

P.S. For a counter-example of a very classy resignation letter from a cruel, beautiful genius, here is Steve Jobs’ resignation from Apple.

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