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Working Life: Go on, take the plunge

Your father told you never to leave a job without something to go to. But walking out can work wonders for your self-esteem. Emma Cook steers you through it
IF CAREERS can be compared to relationships, then chucking in your job is the drawn-out separation that always leaves one party feeling rejected, however diplomatic the execution may have been. And as any jilted partner will tell you, if you want to retain a modicum of self-respect, it's really a question of getting in first.

"It felt like splitting up with a boyfriend," says Louise, 32 and a copywriter working for a large advertising agency. She handed in her notice after months of feeling overlooked by bosses. "After I realised I needed to leave I stayed on far too long hoping that things would change, just as one does in a relationship that goes wrong. You become demoralised and sad as the months go by, desperately hoping things will improve but they don't. And when I eventually resigned, I felt terribly relieved."

Unlike finishing a relationship, though, resigning is still loaded with negative connotations. Despite the fact that no one expects to remain in one organisation for life, or even in the same career, walking out of your company still smacks of a lack of commitment; a sense that something went horribly wrong. Although anyone who's handed in their notice will tell you the act itself takes a fair amount of resolve and strength of mind, future employers rarely see it that way. As Stefan Stern, spokesman for the Industrial Society, says, "If you haven't got a job to go to, a recruiter will ask certain questions; 'Why did it happen?' If it's happened before they will ask, 'Why do you always run away?'"

But like all decisions that seem rash at the time, they can bring an enormous sense of exhilaration. "I felt miserable for months, and just making the decision to get out felt like a tremendous step forward. I felt liberated," says Sophie, 30, a management consultant who walked out of a highly paid job last summer. Louise agrees. "I was able to walk away without a twinge of regret. I felt totally calm and peaceful." Having said that, by the time Louise had handed in her notice, she had another job lined up. "My self-esteem was too low to leave without having another position to go to."

Sometimes it isn't so much the fear of what you are leaving, more a dread of your employer's reaction. There are plenty of scary stories that tell of the shamed ex-employee asked to clear their desk in front of shocked and silent colleagues, after which they are "escorted from the premises" by a security guard. We still fear that employers will somehow have the ultimate revenge; the power to make us feel we're in the wrong and that everyone else will find out. Surely that's why so many workers suffer silently in jobs that make them miserable; they rarely even admit to their bosses that they're unhappy. That would look too much like weakness. "People are so frightened to have these sorts of conversations," says Ros Taylor, director of Plus Consulting. "They're afraid of how they'll be asked to leave. Employers as well need to learn that when people leave it isn't necessarily disloyalty. It's good for the company - it introduces new blood. And it can be rejuvenating." Both sides need to view the inevitable conclusion as the next natural stage - a little like children flying the nest. Taylor recalls a company who actively nurture their employees when they want to leave - advising and helping them in whatever path they wish to follow. Interestingly, they have a number of returners who rejoin the company and bring back fresh experience from elsewhere. It's hard to imagine other organisations adopting such an enlightened attitude.

Instead, since so little discussion takes place, resigning ends up as the final opportunity to "set the record straight", in other words, the culmination of months of petty grudges and resentments. One disgruntled friend of a friend was so disillusioned with her job in a marketing company, she used her resignation letter to air a whole list of grievances, along the lines of, "And while I'm on the subject, you never gave me the chance to achieve X,Y and Z, and I really wasn't happy when you said such-and- such," along with other angry accusations, most of which sounded dangerously like sour grapes. Certainly, they weren't the sort of thoughts you'd want to commit to paper, especially with a photocopier in the vicinity.

When Rob, 34 and then working as a manager in a retail company, decided to leave, he was definitely hoping for a reaction. "I was really looking forward to it. I wanted to shock them. I almost wanted them to think, 'What have we done to offend him?'" Rob's work had become so intolerable that even the idea of going on the dole seemed blissful compared to spending ten hours a day feeling compromised. After Rob left, he did nothing for several weeks, and then signed up for a writing course, which led to freelancing. Like Louise, the first analogy he mentions is the relationship one. "I'd finished a six-year relationship some time before I chucked in the job. It was a similar experience in that when you get out of an unhappy situation you can suddenly gain perspective. In both cases, I didn't realise how depressed I had been until I left."

Still, in terms of work, it's not an example career advisors would advocate. Stern says, "There are a few cliches that still have some truth; you should try to leave on good terms because you don't know when you'll be back. It may be tempting to send a poisonous memo saying, 'I never liked you anyway', but things get spread around - you never know who's friends with other people."

Despite paying lip service to the idea that resigning can be empowering, the sensible, grown-up view is one of extreme caution. Drop the fantasy of storming into your boss's office, shouting "I quit" and slamming the door behind you in triumphant fury. Or at least if you do, make sure you've got a much better alternative waiting in the wings.

"Resign in haste and repent at leisure," warns Stern. "Although if it's done in the right way it can be a positive experiences. But you've got to think things through." Taylor agrees. "Plan for it. Give yourself three months. Start sending out letters to head-hunters. Have something to go for and set timescales." Above all, she says, feel positive. That's all very wise, but as most over-worked employees can testify, it's almost impossible to job-hunt seriously while still in a current position - especially an unhappy one. Somehow all your energy gets sapped by the living nightmare of feeling miserable and under-valued. That's why careers advisors shouldn't be quite so cut and dry about planning carefully for the next stage of life.

Rob's decision was spontaneous but, as it happened, it was the best way of finding out what he really wanted to do. "It was a case of jumping in at the deep end. I knew that was the only way I could motivate myself to get a proper job, rather than falling into something for the sake of it. I also knew that whatever I did next had to be more enjoyable. Then, when I followed my instincts, it felt like a huge weight had been lifted."