Susan Margolin
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Nowadays, there are few rules for career paths, but one piece of conventional wisdom holds true: It’s easier to find a job while you have a job.  

If your career mojo starts to fade, your boss changes, or company politics take a toxic turn, “sticking it out” makes sense; it’s less risky for employers to hire you. Meanwhile, most people can’t afford to leave work just because they feel like it. After all, no job is perfect — especially when it pays the bills.

But in some cases, so-called best practice doesn’t fit with your reality. Sometimes, it’s okay to quit.

4 Circumstances Where It's Okay to Quit Your Job Without a Backup

The key to knowing if and when you can quit without another job is planning. Below are four scenarios from women who left their work without jobs and advice from a career coach to help evaluate when to quit your current job, even if professional uncertainty lies ahead.  

1. Reputational risk

Career coach Michelle Awuku-Tatum draws a line in the sand when it comes to quitting:

"I do not encourage people to quit without something lined up except in one unequivocal situation: if there is something illegal, unethical, or actions which carry reputational risk for you. I ask people ‘When all is said and done, how would you feel if your situation would appear on the front page of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal and you were implemented?’"

If a reputational risk is at stake, it’s time to leave.

Example #1: Marie

This was the turning point for Marie, a market analytics specialist in retail. For five years she prided herself on customizing products to her clients’ needs. She maintained great relationships with long-term clients while delivering year on year account growth. But when her boss left, and a new manager took over, her role shifted away from customized products to new product lines. Under new leadership, her core strength in which she prided herself most — analytical and professional integrity — seemed to matter less than sales.

“I quickly began realizing I was living in an upside-down world,” she said. Data results generated from her customized products were used in marketing presentations for non-related products. This wasn’t illegal, but for Marie, for whom accuracy and safeguarding client trust were paramount, the sales technique was misleading. “I know that lots of companies do this,” Marie admits. But she couldn’t reconcile her ethics with the company’s sales approach. “It really affected me. I felt dishonest.” Marie stood up to leadership but was branded “uncooperative and uncollaborative.” She was stuck; her work would be used for unintended purposes.

Example #2: Jane

Ethical issues were also, at stake for Jane, a non-profit executive. At age 33, Jane relocated from New York to California with her husband, landing her “dream job” — managing and recruiting volunteers for a non-profit that served causes she believed in and leveraged her expertise in education management.

But after she joined, Jane reported to two supervisors in separate offices. One assigned KPI’s which directly contradicted her values. “I kept getting assignments which just didn’t feel right to me. As a manager, I felt like I was being asked to rope volunteers into assignments that I fundamentally didn’t think they should do. I couldn’t put volunteers in that position.” Jane told her other boss: “I feel split. I can’t do this... This isn’t what I signed up for.” 

Feeling ethically compromised, both Marie and Jane couldn’t, in good conscience, look for internal roles. They couldn’t turn a blind eye to work that they fundamentally thought was wrong. It affected them deeply.

2. Physical and mental health impact

The impact of working in unethical workplaces is physical and real.  

Jane

Jane internalized her stress, not sleeping, crying daily, and rapidly losing weight in a matter of months. “I was not going to allow myself to fail,” she reflects. But her health declined. “I virtually stopped eating altogether. I’m short and curvy. It takes a lot or me to drop weight.” Finally, her best friend, who she describes as “extremely logical and dispassionate,” confronted her: “You wanted this job, but you don’t need it. You need to quit.”  

Jane had moved to California with her husband with plans to start graduate school, so financially, they had budgeted to live on one income. After her friend’s intervention, she gave her two-week notice, leaving only six months after she joined.

Emotionally, Jane wrestled with quitting but has since learned that her health comes first:

"I was really sad that it wasn’t the job I wanted it to be. It felt like failure. I felt like I was losing what should have been my dream job. The idea that somehow, I had snagged what should have been a really great thing and I couldn’t make it work, was hard to get over. I wish I could be the person who walks in, does a good job no matter what. But now I know that if I lose my appetite and lose weight, something's up. I need to make plans to go."

Marie

For Marie, the hardest part of leaving was the emotional impact.

"For the first time in my life, I couldn’t stand by my work; I take my integrity very seriously,” she said. Marie had a goal in sight to reach: to hang on until her company paid out a financial incentive. That was her golden ticket to buy freedom for a “sabbatical from work.” So she endured and resigned two months after the payout. The extra time took a toll on her. “I was utterly burned out... I felt chewed up.” Marie explains. “All I wanted was to take a break. The burn out was so extreme that when I left, I flat-lined. After three months of not working, I was nowhere near recharged. It took so much longer than I imagined to return to normal.”

The health toll

For women whose physical or mental health are at risk, career coach Michelle advises that the best path forward is to work with a professional (e.g. career coach, mental health professional) to plan to leave. For example, Michelle asks, “If you were to stay, what changes could you make to manage your wellbeing in the meantime?” 

If, however, women can’t make it work (through lifestyle changes, setting boundaries, or leveraging medical leave policies)—sometimes a break is needed. But Michelle stresses that if health is the reason to quit, women must be emotionally and physically prepared when they initiate their job search: “Makes sure you look and feel healthy when you start to look again. If you choose to disclose that you left for health reasons but present yourself as if you are unwell, you will be scrutinized.”   

Today, neither Jane nor Marie question their decision. Jane quickly found a job working in education, while Marie, after decompressing and traveling, is pursuing a master’s degree in data analytics to supplement her MBA — “bulletproof” credentials which strongly position her for the future.

3. Life-changing circumstances

Example #3: Chantal

Chantal worked in market research for a global food service industry for the decade after business school.

“I really loved my job, the brand, and the company,” she said. While working full-time for the same company in the US and Asia, she balanced a dual-career family, gave birth to two children, and fought cancer.

But when she relocated to the US after her husband’s work shifted to Michigan, she commuted between the company’s headquarters in Chicago and her new home outside of Detroit. She did everything she could to make the arrangement work. But the commute, while juggling two young children, and adjusting from their third consecutive move and life post-cancer was “simply unsustainable.” 

“I felt like I had been in a whirlwind... You move halfway around the world, get situated, and then three years later you are moving again, then, where you think you are going is not where you end up. It was go-go-go-go.” Chantal looked internally for other roles, but the timing was off. “There simply weren’t a lot of options.” So, she made the “bittersweet” decision that remained: she resigned. “It was a decision that we all made with a cool head; there were no bad feelings, not bad blood. We tried to make it work, but it just couldn’t.”

Prioritizing

Like Marie and Jane, Chantal doesn’t second guess her choice. Life had changed too much.

“People say don’t leave without a job, but they don’t know the personal reasons why you do," she said. "I needed to stop and take a breath so my head could stop spinning. I keep telling myself, I’m just going to give myself permission to take a breath.” As a cancer survivor, Chantal’s priorities crystalized. “Cancer is a life-altering experience... It made the decision easier for me. In one word, it was clarifying. It stripped the wool from my eyes. I saw what was important to me and how short life can be. The need to let go is very important.” 

Now, nine months after resigning, Chantal is commencing her job search, open to possibilities. “Although it was hard to walk away, the best and most exciting part is the potential of doing something new, whatever it may be.”

Chantal offers this advice to others contemplating quitting: “Be clear about your priorities. Live according to them. Before cancer, I would have listened more to conventional wisdom. But now I know what is most important to me. Take stock, and then it will be easier.”

4. Unfulfilled life goals

Success at work can open up opportunities to fulfill personal goals. 

Example #4: Anna

For 36-year-old Anna, six years in sales, strategy, and marketing at the same CPG company had followed an upward trajectory; but despite her promotions, something was missing.

“I noticed I wasn’t as engaged as I had been previously,” Anna describes of the early signs that she needed a change. “My level of engagement had dipped; as I looked to the future, there weren’t specific projects or milestones that I was excited about.” Although she delivered results and was respected professionally, Anna held onto a “nagging thought” about a life goal to travel and study mediation which she couldn’t shake. “I was in a constant grind; I had personal things I wanted to do that my job wouldn’t allow me to do.”

So Anna was strategic. At first, her boss approved a three-month sabbatical, but when a more senior role opened up, she saw her path to attain her goal. She set aside 50% of her income: “I wanted to be in a position that I could leave my job while I had the financial opportunity without family obligations to pursue a dream I had for a long time.” With money set aside, she planned a one-year break: three months at home to prioritize health and relationships, and the remaining time traveling the world, including a silent meditation retreat in Thailand.

Freedom and obstacles

Anna calls herself “lucky” for having the freedom to do so. But she also acknowledges its challenges:

"The hardest part is the social pressure. My mother cried. She’s an immigrant so she couldn’t understand why I would leave a well-paying job or do what most people wouldn’t do... It’s not a very common path... It takes constant reminder to myself and to other people who question it that it’s an okay thing to do and may even be a great thing."

Anna advises women in similar circumstances to have perspective: “What helps is that other people who have done it have landed on their feet. Whenever doubt creeps in, it was helpful to remember that other people lose their jobs. People go through changes.” Currently, Anna applies this perspective to her job search. “I feel like I am more equipped to deal with job search stresses; I pay a lot more attention to my states of mind.”

The bottom line: Financial preparation

All four women share one key planning step: They prepared financially. All saved beforehand and/or made life changes to live without salaries. No one quit on a whim.

“It would have been different if I had kids,” Jane prefaces her story. “That’s what’s really important to remember. We made deliberate financial decisions to make it happen. We’re not risk takers or spontaneous people.” More recently as a working mother, Jane couldn’t leave: “Later, I didn’t say I need to quit this job; I said I need to find a new job—which is a much different path.” 

Create a cushion

For women who can’t afford to immediately quit, coach Michelle stresses that women should overestimate how long you think it will take to be employed again and be judicious in cutting living expenses: “Whatever you think you need to live off of, half it... A financial cushion allows you to make choices so that you don’t end up in the same situation again.”

Marie’s takeaways resonate across scenarios: “You need to be clear about your values... You have choices in your life. You can live many different lifestyles. You need to be confident about your employment prospects.” She advises practical, honest reflection and planning: “In choosing to take time off, are you willing to live frugally when it takes time to find the right next job? How much do you need your career path to feel fulfilled? How much do you need to live? Being really clear on those questions is most important.” 

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