How to leave a job you love for one you truly need

Gratitude cannot be a reason to remain at a company. If you want to change your career, there are tools for managing feelings of guilt and gaining a clearer sense of what is best for you

Woman seated at her office in front of her computer, working
A woman at her workstation.

When Adriana (34, Madrid, Spain) had been working at her dream company for six years, she got a strong dose of reality. She didn’t get the promotion she wanted, although she was offered a lateral change to a new—and promising—department at the company. Her immediate boss had just resigned and suggested that Adriana follow her to take a job with a competitor also. At the same time, Adriana received a call from a third company to set up an interview. She felt guilty about the idea of not accepting the internal position (how could she say no to the place that had given her a great opportunity?), felt even more bitter at the notion of not following her former boss and would have been disappointed with herself if she did not sit down and listen to what the third company had to offer. It was a difficult situation.

A few days ago, Alison Green, a workplace counseling specialist and the author of several books on the subject (Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work and Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager’s Guide to Getting Results) received a query about a similar situation. The writer was “struggling to decide if I should even entertain the idea of applying for an attractive job when I am fairly satisfied and secure where I am.” Green wasted no time in encouraging the person to eliminate the sense of guilt that often arises in these situations: “First and foremost, gratitude is a lovely emotion to have, but it’s no reason to stay in a job. When your manager and company gave you a shot at the position you have now, they weren’t doing you a favor; they hired you because they believed doing so would serve their interests. You owed them your best work in exchange for their faith in you (not to mention your salary), yes, but it sounds like you’ve provided that. You’re not obligated to stick around for longer than is in your best interests…So please don’t think about this question in terms of what you owe your current manager. You wouldn’t be abandoning her if you left; you would be moving on to the next logical step in your career after offering several years’ good work, which is the normal course of events.”

“An employee’s relationship with a company often resembles a personal relationship, so when it is time to move on to another project, one [experiences] feelings that are similar to a breakup,” explains Mara Aznar, a psychologist who specializes in human resources and the talent acquisition manager at atwork. She points out that these days “personal commitment, a sense of belonging, bonds with our manager and colleagues and…teambuilding” are very much encouraged, so it is common that people have a hard time letting go of these connections and fear change. But, she says, that should not be confused with feeling that we owe something to the company, “as if we are somehow failing them by wanting a change.” Guilt is intrinsic to our culture, she says: “The idea remains that work is a place where we fulfill our obligations, not a place where we can enjoy ourselves. So, when another offer appeals to us, it can be bittersweet. “It’s great to be grateful, but we can’t forget that we are an asset and that we bring a lot of value [to the company]. But that doesn’t mean that we have to stay at that job for life; that would be a huge mistake,” she warns.

This approach begs the question of whether it makes sense to choose the unknown (the new job) over something familiar with which you are moderately satisfied (your current job). “I don’t believe that people are always obligated to listen to [job] offers,” explains Mara Aznar. It “has more to do with where you are, in terms of both your life and your career. There are times when listening to other offers and other projects can be [a distraction] and a burden, but at other times it is a very good thing because it opens doors and keeps us active in the market. For example, if we have just started a project and we want to maintain [our] motivation and focus, “it is not the best time to keep listening to offers.” But doing so somewhat regularly keeps us active “and prepares us so that if we want to [make a] change tomorrow, we are not out of touch with how an interview is done or unfamiliar [with the state of our] field,” she adds.

How to evaluate a new job

Life doesn’t come with an instruction manual, and this situation is no exception. “I believe that we have to know ourselves first, to know if we are motivated by professional growth and having a career at a company, by compensation and financial benefits or by a team and innovation. We don’t all respond to the same stimuli, and I believe that everyone must figure out their own priorities [and] what is important to them,” explains Mara Aznar. Once we are clear about what we want, it is useful to look at job websites such as Glassdoor where you might be able to ask employees about their experience at a company and what it’s like to work there to see whether the new position suits your priorities. If you have the opportunity to speak with someone who works at the new company in person, that discussion can give you concrete information to help you make a more informed decision.

To reach that point, Iván García Miranda, a PhD and expert in business and innovation, recommends three tools on LinkedIn to evaluate your current position when you are considering a new job: the first is to make a simple pro and con list of what you like and dislike about your current job, like the office environment, flexible hours, recognition for good work, whether you have a company car, food vouchers or work close to your home. The second tool consists of evaluating the skills you acquired, both technical (new tools, processes, programs, languages, systems and methodologies that increase our technical knowledge) and soft skills (such as improving our public speaking skills, perfecting our ability to negotiate, resolving conflicts, leading teams or making decisions). The third tool is the so-called resume test, which involves determining whether we can add a relevant fact or skill from our last six or 12 months at work to our resume. These assessments can give you a clearer idea of whether you are progressing in your current position and what you want your next career move to be.

Mara Aznar also reminds us that while changing jobs serves to improve working conditions, it also requires asking yourself what you are willing to give up. “We are going to have to give up something because no job is perfect and meets all of our criteria. We have to pay close attention to the important moment in which we find ourselves because it is usually not compatible with the goals we set for ourselves; that prompts us to change jobs, but there isn’t a good fit. It is also important to be clear about where we want to go; we no longer plan our life five or 10 years ahead…but setting goals, even if they are short-term ones, helps us to decide,” she explains. In this sense, it is a good idea to adjust our expectations, because all changes involve a certain amount of risk and uncertainty.

How to tell your boss

A good boss wouldn’t want you to miss out on a better opportunity, even if it came from outside the company; in fact, he or she would probably want you to pursue it. But why is it so hard to tell your boss that you’re thinking of leaving? Mara Aznar talks about an [employee’s] sense of leaving the nest: it is hard to leave a place where we have been treated well, which can lead to a feeling of indebtedness. In addition, we find it very difficult to do because “they don’t teach us to have difficult conversations and [deal with] confrontations. We find it hard to talk about raises, we find it hard to give and receive feedback and to say that we disagree with something. We don’t work on assertive communication in business contexts; while it is true that [these things have] evolved a lot, we still find it difficult because we feel like we are hurting the other person. Saying that we intend to leave also means ‘I’m leaving you,’ which clearly reflects how hard it is for us to cut ties,” she explains. To make it somewhat easier, Aznar recommends only telling your boss once you’ve made the decision, not before. She says that it is essential “to prepare for the conversation beforehand; you should not do it spontaneously. Setting aside a space to talk solely about this topic is critical, as is beginning the conversation clearly: “Starting [the talk] by saying that you are leaving makes it easier to take…When we give context and too many explanations, everything becomes complicated, and we get nervous.” You should say something like ‘I’m leaving the company and here’s why.’

However, if “you are going through a difficult time or a crisis and you are thinking about changing jobs…[and] you have a very good relationship with your boss and believe that there may be a solution—for example, an internal promotion—it may be [a good idea] to share that [with them]. But this must be a well-thought-out conversation, and the options have to be clear; ultimately, a boss can offer support, but s/he is not a counselor…You can also seek professional help outside the company, if necessary,” Aznar says.

In addition to choosing the right time, broaching the subject in advance and speaking honestly, Infojobs recommends a positive approach: “It is important that you maintain that [outlook] throughout the conversation. Talk about your new direction as an opportunity to grow, as a challenge you want to try or as a change that you need personally. Try to make your boss understand that you are not leaving just for better conditions, but that it is really something that you want, that motivates you and that will help you to grow. Taking this approach with them will help avoid feelings of disappointment and/or confusion on their part about your departure. How you leave the job matters. Thus, Infojobs emphasizes the importance of the order in which you communicate your decision to move on: “What you say is as important as who you say it to, and especially who you tell first. Talk to your boss first, then Human Resources…If you can, be discreet about your decision with your other co-workers. Making your boss feel that you’ confided in him or her first will help him or her feel valued and will significantly reduce the feelings of discomfort that a conversation like this can cause.”

What you can take away from an interview

Beyond the possibility of a new job, one can learn a lot from a job interview. It can accomplish a number of things, such as “valuing the job we have, reinforcing our technical and personal skills and keeping us active in the market,” says Mara Aznar. “In today’s world, one must prepare for all interviews… so doing an interview from time to time helps us to gain confidence and understand what the [job] market is like,” she adds. If we have an interview while we are already employed, it is quite likely that it will go even better than usual: “We are always more relaxed when we don’t need [the job]” she says. But whether we are employed or not, a job interview should always be an opportunity to interview the person who wants to hire us…It is a key time for asking difficult but important questions to determine if the job is a good fit for us (or not). Michael Page, a recruitment company, recommends “being honest and direct, being clear and knowing how to convey the real reasons why you are looking for a change, and being direct about your salary aspirations.”

“In fact, roles are changing in some sectors, such as Information Technology (IT); the demand [for workers] is so great that interviewers sell the [open position], while the interviewee asks questions about their fit with the company…[Job candidates] can choose, and they take advantage of it very well…It’s important that you come from a sector that’s competitive to some degree, make sure it’s [where]… you want to be and don’t be afraid to ask [questions],” advises Mara Aznar. We want to work at a company that welcomes all of our questions about salary and day-to-day work. As in any new relationship, trust is a two-way street.

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