When is it okay to quit without giving notice?

Consoling your friend when she gets laid off gets awkward if you're the one who gave her the pink slip iStockphoto

Dear Evil HR Lady,

I work for a small non-profit. I was hired to open a preschool/daycare in the building. None of the board members or the director have any education or experience in the early childhood field. As a consequence, I am repeatedly asked to do things that run contrary to the law in our state. Last month, I went over the director's head to the board to protest four specific instances of questionable ethics. Those issues were basically resolved in a heated meeting where not only my intelligence but my entire profession was insulted. To my knowledge, the board of directors does not seem to care about the employees' complaints, which included the use of racial slurs by the director. No one from the board contacted me or the 17 out of 20 current employees who wished to speak with them. Obviously, employees are leaving quickly.

The past two weeks I have been involved with yet another battle about my interpretation of the daycare laws. I am exhausted and I cannot fight this anymore. We are yet again not in compliance with the law and I am due for a surprise inspection any day. I have a glowing reference from my immediate supervisor, who also just quit. I want to resign on Tuesday with no notice. I do not want the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) licensing rep to associate me with a school that is not in compliance, because I have fought very hard to adhere to the letter and spirit of the law.

When is it OK to leave without notice?

The general rule is that you don't quit a job without notice unless one of the following conditions apply:

1. Your physical or mental health is in immediate danger. This doesn't mean the job is causing you stress or it makes your left arm a bit sore. It means that your health is in jeopardy -- and mental health is the same as physical health when making your decision. This can also be stretched to cover a family emergency as well.

2. You are in danger. If a boss, coworker or coworker is violent, or there is a serious safety violation, then it makes sense to leave and you're not obligated to stick it out.

3. Staying two weeks longer would cause you to violate the law. No job is worth a jail sentence.

4. Staying two weeks longer would cause you to violate ethical/religious/moral standards. No job is worth an eternity in hell.

5. Your boss will fire you on the spot the moment you hand in your resignation. Well, in that case, you officially give two weeks' notice anyway -- just know that you won't have to work it. Remove your personal items from the office before presenting your notice.

If one of these conditions does not apply, it's better to tough it out for the two weeks. Regardless of how terrible a job is, the potential consequences from quitting without notice can come back to bite you. You may have a fabulous reference in the form of your previous supervisor, but that doesn't mean that a recruiter won't call someone else at that company for a reference check.

I (and many of my HR friends) would mark someone down who quit without notice as "ineligible for rehire." You may say, "Well, there's no way on earth I would ever, not in a million years, work for this company again!" Ahh, but that's not the entire consequence of that black mark on your "permanent record." This information can be shared with someone who is checking references, and it will count against you. Additionally, just because you don't want to work for THIS company again, doesn't mean that five years from now you won't be applying to some big corporation in another state that purchased your little company. When your social security number is run through their system, up will pop your "ineligible for rehire" status. Oops.

Plus, it's just darn rude to quit without notice. Two weeks isn't enough to time (generally) to replace someone, but it's the cultural standard and people don't look fondly on it. Not only does it leave your boss in the lurch (which is what you want), it leaves your coworkers and employees in the lurch (which is what you don't want). You never know when you'll run into these people again, and it's best not to burn bridges.

So, what should you do? You're facing definite legal and ethical violations here (although I doubt these rise to the level of jail). To me, it's not entirely clear that quitting without notice will achieve your goal of not being associated with a violations-filled center. In fact, it may make that association even worse. When the inspection happens, the inspector will want to know where the director is and you bet your name will come up about a thousand times and every time it will be accompanied with the information that you quit without notice and clearly you did this to avoid this very inspection and the board had NO IDEA WHATSOEVER that you had done such a terrible job.

They will not say, "Oh, Mary warned us that scissors hanging from strings two feet off the ground in the toddler room was a bad idea and we just didn't listen to her." They will say, "The scissors were Mary's idea!" Your reputation with this particular inspector will be mud.

And that's the problem with unethical people -- they are unethical in all areas, not just one. If they won't fix the problems now, they will blame the problems on you.

Instead of quitting without notice, I propose you do something different. Tell the board very clearly that the center is due for an inspection and when that inspection happens, the inspector will find that the center is in violation for A, B and C. If you are given the authority to fix A, B and C, you will stay and do so. If you are not given the authority to fix A, B and C, then you are presenting your two weeks' notice and you will also be informing the DCFS immediately of the problems.

Most likely, they'll toss you out on your rear end right then. Being terminated from a job is no worse than quitting without notice, and you may be eligible for unemployment and/or whistle-blower protection (depending on your state and what laws are being violated). Document everything and send a detailed letter to your licensing authority to inform them of the violations. You will, of course, keep a copy of that letter. If you use email, you send it from your personal email account so it can't mysteriously be deleted.

However, there is a possibility that they will agree to allow you to fix the problems, in which case you still have a job and there are no ethical problems with staying.

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