Your new job seemed great at first, but you soon realized that the company is going downhill fast. Perhaps the first signs appeared in how unorganized the meetings are or how your boss routinely misses deadlines. Then you found out that your paycheck will be delayed a month or realized that the company isn’t being honest with its customers. What do you do?
I thought about this dilemma recently as I read Albert O. Hirschman’s 1970 essay, “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.” In the essay, Hirschman discusses organizations in which conditions are deteriorating, and he presents two options: You can either exit by quitting the job, or you can voice, meaning stay with the organization but voice your concerns to leadership in hopes of improving the situation.
People have differing attitudes toward voice. When I was starting my career as a chemist, it was clear to me that voice was not an option at my company. Objections raised by employees were either dismissed or held against them. So I grumbled under my breath and grudgingly went along with the organization’s decisions, no matter how wrong I thought they were. At other organizations, voicing your concerns is welcomed by management and there are established channels for approaching leadership.
Why do some people stay in a bad job? In his essay, Hirschman introduces the concept of loyalty, which can come in many forms. There is loyalty to the company and the good that it does. For example, people can be loyal to the history of contributions that a pharmaceutical company has made or to the materials that a chemical company has provided to society. There is a great deal of pride in being part of a company that is well regarded by the public for its scientific achievements. I think this kind of loyalty can keep people at a company much longer than they might otherwise stay.
Then there’s loyalty to the projects that chemists get to do. While bosses and company strategies can change in the blink of an eye, the laboratory can be a refuge. Chemists love chemistry, and many scientists have stories of bearing through difficult circumstances because they believed in the projects they were advancing. Another company may have similarly interesting work, but a company’s insights into a particular kind of chemistry or a specific therapeutic area often have something unique that makes the research rewarding.
I think the most common form of loyalty that keeps people from leaving a bad job is being part of a community of like-minded scientists, or more often, having a strong leader or mentor. I have long speculated that loyalty is about being shown unexpected grace from senior employees. There is nothing quite like being forgiven for making a huge mistake. That kind of grace tends to elicit unusually high levels of loyalty.
When voice and loyalty have run their courses, only one option remains. Exiting can be the loudest signal to both coworkers and management that something is wrong with the organization and that it needs to change direction. But exiting comes with a cost. Even if you’ve made up your mind to leave, you’ll need to find another job. You should not make that decision lightly.
Before you quit, you should find out how permanent your thoughts are and decide on the best long-term course for you. After talking to people whom you trust, I encourage you to sleep on your decision. Better yet, write down your plan and come back to it a month later. If voice and loyalty are truly out of the equation, then it’s time for you to exit.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS..