How to Resign Gracefully

An engineer resigned this week from an LA startup. This otherwise insignificant event turned into a big story when that engineer posted the exchange with his boss on his blog. It’s a lesson in human nature and how to comport oneself in a business environment.

Background

The resignation of an engineer from Mahalo and the subsequent email exchange between that engineer and the CEO, high profile Jason Calacanis, became news this week. It all started with this tweet:

Free advice for entitled Gen Y trophy kids: if you spend 12 months at a company over and over you look like a flake.

The “trophy kid” remark refers to a previous statement by Jason about the trend of Gen-Y now getting trophies or awards for participation, basically for just showing up.

This prompted prominent venture capitalist and host of This Week In Venture Capital host Mark Suster tweeted:

.@jason @tonyadam - I never hire job hoppers. Never. They never make good employees. Jason was spot on.

and then posted the somewhat controversial Never Hire Job Hoppers. Never. They Make Terrible Employees, which was later tempered with Job Hoppers Redux: An Employee’s Perspective.

It became clear that this referred to the resignation of one Evan Culver when he posted the email exchange on his blog (now removed). TechCrunch posted the exchange in How Not To Handle A Resignation Gracefully, which has triggered a firestorm of response, much of it directed at Jason and allegedly much of it has been removed by the moderators.

The Facts

Evan’s email says:

This isn’t an easy email to write, but as the subject suggests, this email is to inform you of my resignation from Mahalo effective in 2 weeks.

This email was sent to Jacob Burch (Director of Technology), Jeff Ammons (Developer) and Jason. It appears Jason was out of the office (his reply is from his Blackberry) and it’s alleged in the TechCrunch comments that Evan resigned to the CTO (Mark Jeffrey).

California is an at-will employment state so barring any relevant contractual terms, no notice was required to quit and no reason is required to fire someone (barring legal issues such as discrimination).

Evan’s email was polite but otherwise perfunctory.

Jason addresses this issue in This Week In Startups #49 saying that he liked the guy, two weeks prior he had been promoted into a management position.

That being said, let me give you some advice.

Showing Up Is Not Enough

It’s about what you do, what you’re achieved. Nobody cares if you simply showed up. This is the tragedy of the modern education system in that it rewards participation not winning. Whether it be children, employees or whatever you are doing them a huge disservice and creating an entitlement culture.

You Will Get Yelled At

A lot of comments on TechCrunch revolved around being treated badly. If you’re lucky you have a boss that’s passionate about what they’re doing. If so, such bosses will get heated and yell because they care.

Getting treated badly is actually having a boss who is completely indifferent. At that point you’re simply a square on an org chart and a line item on a budget, utterly expendable and replaceable.

This shouldn’t be taken as carte blanche for employee abuse but nor should isolated incidents of being yelled at be taken for abuse.

Man Up (In Person)

Apologists will argue that in the age of modern communication, it’s OK to resign by email. Let me be absolutely clear: it absolutely is not.

You walk into your boss’s office and say “I’m not happy because of …” or “I’ve been offered this opportunity to do …” or whatever the case is. Give your boss a chance to respond. This isn’t about making a play for more money. It’s about respect. Even if you have no intention of staying, just by giving your boss a chance to respond and to do in person, you’ve shown that person the respect they probably deserve.

They’re not in the office? You wait a few days until they are. They new job can’t way? Bullshit. Or, if true, it’s a good sign that it’s an organization you don’t want to work for because they don’t care about you.

Most of all, be honest. If it’s more money you want or need, say so. If you simply don’t like it where you are or you think it’s a mistake, say so.

A Startup is not a Large Company

The vast majority of startups are small. That means that each person is much more valuable and much harder to replace. What’s more, most employees will have some kind of equity stake in the company. Contrast this to a large company where you tend to be a small cog in a very large machine and infinitely replaceable. You can’t compare the two experiences.

Chris Dixon posted Twelve months notice:

Generally speaking, there are two approaches to relating to other people in the business world. The first approach is transactional and legalistic:  work is primarily an exchange of labor for money, and agreements are made via contracts.   Enforcement is provided by organizations, especially the legal system.  The second approach relies on trust, verbal agreements, reputation and norms, and looks to the community to provide enforcement when necessary.

In the startup world, the latter approach dominates…

For this reason, if you are an employee working at a startup where the managers are honest, inclusive and fair, you should disregard everything you’ve learned about proper behavior from people outside of the startup world.

So ignore any comments about the “at-will” issue. It’s irrelevant.

Never Ever Embarrass Your Boss

This is Evan’s biggest faux pas: posting the email exchange on his blog. Note the self satisfied:

I should note, that instead of responding, he instead removed my email account. Real pro of him. Good thing I forwarded it to myself first :P

Make no mistake: this is deplorable behaviour. Had it remained private, which it should’ve, Jason may have calmed down and mellowed about the situation over time. As it stands, he would rightfully be incensed because this has become a news story.

Worse for Evan: any future employer will find this story on a Google search and it makes him look really bad.

Barred From The Office

When someone resigns or is fired it is not uncommon to pay them for their notice period and send them home immediately. Frankly I wish more companies would do this.

Employees that are fired—especially programmers and other IT people—can be a security risk as they can do a lot of damage. That rarely happens but it is an issue. What’s more common is soon-to-be former employees can be disruptive and drain the morale of the team that’s staying. It’s often better to simply tie things off cleanly.

In TWIST #49, Jason also mentioned the salient point that Yahoo (the company Evan is apparently joining) is a competing company to Mahalo. They’re both search companies with Q&A platforms.

Some tried to turn this into an issue about unlawfully withholding belongings. I can guarantee you that if there was anything urgent there (eg prescription medication) that he would’ve gotten that ASAP. Otherwise his stuff would be put in a box and either couriered or delivered to the lobby for his collection in a timely manner.

An employer is well within their rights to bar you from the premises.

A Final Point About Human Nature

There is a key observation you can make from the comments on this about human nature: the majority of people will start with a conclusion and then look for facts to support that conclusion.

A vocal minority really doesn’t like Jason. So what? How is that relevant? You don’t like Mahalo either? How is that relevant? It isn’t. This story for many has simply become another opportunity to bash Jason and grind whatever axe it is you feel the need to grind.

Conclusion

This story that never should’ve been a story is a good opportunity to learn a few lessons about conducting oneself in a professional manner.

22 comments:

Jacks said...

Dude, you expect me to read a story where you berate an employee of yours for resigning? YOU were the one who escalated it, YOU barred him from the building and refused to allow him to get his stuff.

He gave you his two weeks, and in return you make him leave the building immediately? That was more than he needed to do as California is an "at will" state.

Matt V said...

"Make no mistake: this is deplorable behaviour. Had it remained private, which it should’ve, Jason may have calmed down and mellowed about the situation over time."

Total B.S. double-standard. How about:

Make no mistake, Jason's behaviour was deplorable. Had he waited until he was calm before responding (or even just given a civil response to Evan's second email), it is very likely the entire incident would've remained private.

Why does Jason get a pass for his immature outburst (also via email) but Evan is held to a 'standard' that doesn't allow for calling Jason to account for his response.

Anonymous said...

I think I will have to politely disagree with your point of view expressed in this post. In reply to a couple of your points:

I would have no problem with an employee resigning by e-mail. I wouldn't characterize Evan's e-mail as polite but otherwise perfunctory; he goes out of his way in the full e-mail to compliment his former employer and keep some ties. Frankly, his resignation is better than 95% of the resignations I have had to deal with.

In addition, I have no problem with him posting the e-mail exchange on his blog. As an employer, I make sure that I treat my employees with respect in all communications, and if I responded in the fashion that Mr. Calacanis responded I would certainly expect someone to post it for all the world to see!

Needless to say, I guess I'm one of the people who doesn't think this situation reflects badly on Evan in the slightest. I would be one of the employers that would have no hesitation in hiring him, but others may think differently.

William Shields said...

@Jacks what's this "YOU" business? You're not mistaking me for Jason are you?

@Matt Evan did two things that would concern me:

1. He was asked for a 3 year commitment when he joined. He tossed that away without even a conversation. It's not like what was expected of him wasn't known; and

2. He posted the exchange on his blog.

(2) is by far the most egregious problem. As a potential employer I would be concerned about what he'd make public or otherwise do if (when) he left and, even worse, what if he felt aggrieved in some way? Not worth the risk for an otherwise high flight risk.

Anonymous said...

[[[ So ignore any comments about the “at-will” issue. It’s irrelevant. ]]]

That is a huge crock of steaming bullshit.

Anonymous said...

1. The x duration commitment thing is ridiculous. Would Jason not hesitate to fire/layoff Evan if Mahalo was financially squeezed? Unless it's legally binding, it's non-issue.

2. Agree here. But Jason isn't an innocent victim. He acted like an ass and it was shown publicly. Not a great move, but not illegal either. I'd be concerned about hiring Evan only if I knew myself to be an ass. Otherwise, I don't think I have much to worry about.

Anonymous said...

Neither person acted appropriately here. The x duration commitment thing is not ridiculous. If you agree to sign on to a start up for 3 years, you need to have more of an explanation of why you are leaving early. Not because you are legally required to, but because your reputation is on the line. And you should certainly give more then two weeks notice when you had agreed to 3 years.

dennykmiu said...

Jason needs to chill. It is not clear to me if Evan has damaged his brand as an individual. But it is clear that Jason has damaged Mahola as a brand. As the CEO, Jason has responsibility to his shareholders. If you promote someone and still he leaves, you need to find out why and you need to ensure that the team left behind is still motivated. A good CEO does that by inviting the employee to a face-to-face and to provide a reasonable explanation to the rest of the company. It is all optics, but it is important optics. How Jason feels emotionally is not important. What he does to maintain shareholder values is.

Jeremy Rudy said...

Thanks for your insightful post. In my limited start-up experience, I can relate with how much the loss of a team member can impact morale and momentum. In a start-up, there is a higher expectation for open communication -- but it is often an unspoken expectation, and perhaps that's the source of the problem.

I can also relate to Jason, clearly feeling betrayed by hearing of the resignation via email. Taking the higher road isn't easy, but it IS the higher road.

As much as this whole situation is a regrettable lose-lose for both Evan and Jason, reading about it has been a learning experience for me as both an employee and an aspiring CEO of a start-up.

Oh, and if more people read "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie, we'd all be better off.

Al Doan said...

The thing about startups is that everyone is connected. If evan wants to go to Yahoo and thinks he'll be there till he dies, go ahead and don't hesitate to shaft everyone who has opened doors for you along the way, you don't need them. If you ever want to come back to the startup community, you keep your commitments (even if they're based on a handshake), you take care of those who will ultimately open doors for you down the road, and if you have a better opportunity, you come clean with your boss and get their blessing. 99% of the time they'll give it to you, and if they don't, then you can make the conscious decision of whether it's time to cut bait or not.

On both sides, this could have been handled better, but you can't be surprised that this kid tells his boss he's quiting, then tries to give him the terms that he's quitting on. If nothing more than a power move, you can't be surprised that Jason called BS and sent him packing.

I just hope evan has a great time at Yahoo, cause you're right will, when he hops to the next job, he's got a permanent star by his name.

Anthony said...

First of all I would like to express that I read that email exchange when it blasted through the net. I was allowed to read all of what was said, and William has left out a lot of the email exchange.

First thing, I am finding a lot of people on here blasting Evan for leaving a 3 year commitment. When Evan was writing he specifically stated that the position he was leaving for, was a temporary project. He stated he would be back and that he would like to keep things proper so that he may go back. Then after the response from Jason, he fired back stating that he WAS hoping to continue working for the company after the project was done. He even goes as far as to say that he is not going to go too far. He was offered something that he could not pass up. I do not care if he had agreed to 3 years, before Jason blew up at him, Evan was planning on coming back to the company after the project was done. Jason should have been all blessings to know that someone would come back from a project, that they are obviously qualified for, and have a stronger team. Jason should have been excited about this opportunity to strengthen his start up.

Second, I have to state that the response from Jason was immature. From a potential employer's point of view, I would be eager to find Evan's resignation in my pile of applicants that just left their prior company last minute and without time to find a replacement. At least Evan tried to work something out to keep the peace for future use.

Now for my final point. I do agree with you that Evan should not have posted this publicly. He should have kept it private and dealt with the issues privately. You are right in saying that him putting his previous employer out on a "google" search was inappropriate.

Through all of this everyone learn a lesson. What you do and say publicly will always be there. Nothing can completely remove what has been said or done. Jason will lose popularity, rightfully so. Also, Evan will probably have to explain why he did what he did to his previous employer. Either way, it really was of no concern to any of us.

Anonymous said...

This is utter crap.

Matt V said...

If an employer really wants a 3-year commitment, there's a simple way to get one. It's called a contract. A lot of organizations that deal with uniquely talented people use them.

This verbal agreement/trust business is really nice because when your company hits hard times you can throw it all out the window, but you shouldn't be surprised that occasionally an employee does the same.

I've worked on the web for 17 years now, and I've been burned and seen people get burned in many ways. If somebody asked me for a three year commitment, I'd ask for a contract with a buyout and future salary held in escrow as a hedge against bankruptcy. If your start-up can't cover that, then you shouldn't be asking for commitments you can't (or won't) make yourself.

Thibaut Barrère said...

People don't come man up precisely because they know they will get yelled at. Which would not happen if the boss was grown-up enough to be able to show his emotion with other tools than "yelling".

I think it's really time to grow up, really.

Anonymous said...

Everyone is in the wrong here. Resigning over email is a douchenozzle move - especially when moving to a competitor. Yelling at your employees no matter how much you "care" is unacceptable. The expulsion from premises should be standard practice unless there tasks that need to be completed by the person resigning. This whole mess should have never been made public and for that, Evan gets the worst employee of the year award - and I'm no JC fan.

Mark Suster said...

Nice post, William.

My 2 cents:
1. You never quit over email. It's not professional.
2. You never yell at somebody who quits. Especially not by email.

My guess is that both parties regret how this worked out. What we should all do is learn from this experience. If you're thinking about quitting a job do it in person. At a minimum you have a chance to diffuse tension. If you're an employer always have a "cooling off" period before considering how you want to respond to somebody who quits. And don't do it via email.

Thanks for having the conviction to write this. As I've learned putting one's opinion forth subjects you to a lot of personal attacks. Don't let those people get to you.

Mark

Anonymous said...

I have had developers resign via email. They usually write better than they communicate in person. I'd rather get a thoughtful resignation letter, which Evan's was, .. than make someone uncomfortable. I've also had people who quit come back, or follow me at other businesses. Berating someone for pursuing their own career only gets you blackballed.

Blogging about it? Good for him. JC, by all accounts, is a bully, and his business should have never gotten out of the playpen in any case. He's doing other developers a favor by putting them on alert so they don't wander into that place blind. Life is too short to work for bullies.

I worked for one once. It was the longest period of my life. I laughed like a hyena after the "exit interview", which was about as professional as this one. Best career move I made was getting out of that pit.

Anonymous said...

"They’re not in the office? You wait a few days until they are. They new job can’t way? Bullshit. Or, if true, it’s a good sign that it’s an organization you don’t want to work for because they don’t care about you."

When I go on job interviews and they ask me how soon I am available, I say "within 2 weeks of a job offer". This is standard courtesy in IT, to allow them two weeks to hire a consultant or temp, or to offload my work or whatnot.

I am going to sit around a few days to wait for my boss who is running around to come back to the office so I can give him notice in person, in addition to the two weeks? Give me a break. I'm not required by any law to give two weeks notice, *that* is my courtesy to the employer. I now also have to sit around until Mr. Important decides to make his presence in the office? This type of arrogance is hilarious.

KMan said...

Although, there are alot of other questions unanswered in this story; I see a lack of trust between them, clearly.

What harm do you believe, resignation by email would make? Afterall, email is an integral part of our lives.

Here is what I wrote about leaders/managers. [http://izlooite.blogspot.com/2010/07/management-vs-leadership.html]

Anonymous said...

I was the first employee at a 5M VC startup. I had been asked for a 3 month commitment with the incentive of increasing my salary each year -- didn't happen. One year and two months in, I inquired about the promise and the two founders told me they didn't remember making it. I promptly forwarded them their email containing the original promise. Their reply -- "we can't afford it right now." The founder's wife (our worse employee) had just finished burning well over 100k on a web series at the time. We tried to sell it the DVD on Amazon -- that was the business plan.

Not to mention that the CEO was a temperamental infant attempting to decapitate Facebook without any prior experience in the web. He treated no one with respect, blamed employees for his own lack of vision and threatened to fire us when things didn't go according to plan.

Sometimes your boss is a loser. Sometimes your company is a failure. Sometimes an email resignation is completely warranted.

My first impression of a CEO that berates a resigning employee by email: his company must be failing, he has too much time.

Gabriel C. said...

Why are you so eager to justify unacceptable behavior? Yelling is immature, unprofessional, it doesn't show that people care, it shows that they can't control themselves. Life is short, is not worthwhile to spend your talent with those kind of people.
(the resignation was not the best but it was poorly handled by the CEO)

Anonymous said...

there is no difference between a startup and a 'conventional' company

and no difference in what constitutes good behavior

in this case it seems like everybody behaved poorly

the mythology of startups is quite harmful; here are the facts of life:
1. if an enterprise is worthwhile, it can afford to pay people well for normal work weeks; if it cant 'afford' to do so, there's a dubious business model and value proposition

2. any company, startup or otherwise, that brags about 'changing the world', or 'the industry', etc, is smoking crack; run the other way

3. people are people, regardless of where they sit, their title, etc

4. treat people well, whereever you are, whoever you are

5. don't expect to be treated well in return,
that's just life, and life aint fair

6. if your boss is a jerk, quit; if your employee isn't doing the job, fire them

7. but remember it's a private matter, going public is immature, whichever side you are on

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