A few days ago, this thread gained a lot of popularity on Hacker News. The discussion was quite interesting (I encourage you to take a look), but I've nearly immediately felt the urge to expand the topic a bit. Let's try to phrase it this way:

When is it (un)professional to leave a job where you were the one in charge of the mess?

Do you see the difference? On HN it was that guy's new job; he clearly didn't feel the ownership or responsibility - he just didn't expect such a mess and now considers a nearly-immediate withdrawal. But I'm more interested in situations like this:

  • you're either someone who (at least) played a major role in creating the mess
  • or you've (at some point, not a moment ago) been explicitly made (e.g., promoted) responsible for it (maybe hired to take care of it)

Quoting (in a creative way) the old saying:

Is the (engineering) captain supposed to go down with her/his ship?

The comfort of context reset

Contract-wise, it's simple. There's a notice/termination period (usually unreasonably short - as the majority of engineers work as 1-person micro-enterprises, on B2B contracts), so you hand things over, secure the operations, wrap any open initiatives (if possible), hand in the badge (if you have any), and you're done. Adios!

This is where this blog post could end (in theory) - as a wise person has once said:

"Contracts are made for times of war, not for times of peace."

This applies to employment contracts as well. EOT

But let's take a more careful look at some secondary aspects of this event:

  • is such a model morally OK or not?
  • what about the ethics, sense of responsibility, professionalism (of making such a decision)?
  • if that's an issue, how could we fix it (in a way that's fair for all the involved parties)?

So, do we have a problem or not?

The leader's impact

The decisions we make now (as leaders or even "regular" engineers) have their consequences for a long time. Bah, they can be the decisive factor for a company's success or even mere survival. Is it OK not to be responsible for them?

Imagine a doctor: it doesn't matter if (s)he has moved hospitals, (s)he'll still be made accountable for any grievous mistake (s)he made in his past. The same applies to many other professions with lasting effects of their work that (if performed poorly) can have terrible consequences - e.g., bridge builders. In the case of someone who's "in charge", the level of accountability is (should be?), in fact, much higher.

It's not only about being accountable for mistakes made. The overall direction is equally important. Nearly always, there are many paths (to achieve the goal(s)), and someone (the leader) has to set the course and take full ownership over that decision, acting pretty much like a ship's navigator. Is it OK if the navigator bails in half of the trip across the unknown (for the rest) seas?

Last but not least, the leader has her/his crew - (s)he may not have recruited them all, but many of them are on board because they believe in YOU, not some brand, logo, or high-flying slogans. You're the one who sold them the vision, pretty much made actual promises (of what's at stake, on how we'll get there if we pull 120%, etc.). Is it OK to let them down and leave like it's the most normal thing in the world?

No, but.

Been there, done that :(

There are always 'buts'. I've been in this very situation myself. In fact - more than one time already. And I left, each time. I had my reasons - I evaluated them 100s times in my head as the decision was never easy. But in the end, in all the cases - I left.

The funny thing is - it was never about the external factors - like attractive new job offers (e.g., someone offering significantly more money or better career options), but always about the internal ones:

  • the shifting conditions that either made me unable to use my skills and strengths
  • the strategy/long-term commitments (made by someone else) I wasn't eager to commit to (for whatever reason - typically because I was finding them wrong or leading nowhere)
  • glass walls/ceilings (various organization constraints) I wasn't able to breach that were making supposedly simple/obvious things practically impossible

Just one more comment here: I think there's a substantial moral difference if you abandon a ship in a moment of temporary, short-lived crisis and if the crisis is the permanent state. I think is so obvious that there's no further explanation needed.

To summarize: I was compensated as a mercenary (monthly wage) but expected to act as a missionary, however, there were more and more internal factors (I had no real impact on) effectively killing/discouraging/suppressing my zeal.

A side comment: to be absolutely frank, I believe that all those parting decisions had negative implications on everyone involved - myself, the employer, all the other engineers. But still - after all, I'm convinced it'd be much worse (not only for me) if I stayed.

Is there any way to fix that?

Let's put unrealistic ideas aside (football-style contracts, 6mo+ notice periods, more strict contractual responsibility for decisions made, etc.).

The most obvious solution is to make (as a leader) a simple offer:

"To achieve result X, I need resources A & B, more autonomy in C, elimination of constraint D. I either get these, or I can't fulfill my goals, so I leave."

But unfortunately, barely anyone can afford to make such an ultimatum. Why so? If the answer is rejection, you're left w/o a job, and the higher your position is, the more time it takes to find a satisfactory replacement. There are not that many leadership openings, the competition for the interesting ones is fierce, and each of them comes with a very different set of challenges (and dead bodies in the closet) - that you need to investigate beforehand.

That's why we tend to look for a new job first (before communicating our departure), just after we've managed to convince ourselves that our options at the current employer have been depleted.

IMHO the only solution that really works is the "skin in the game". A monthly salary is not enough to build any lasting "sense of duty". But when you're working on something that is tangibly yours and the effects of your work directly impact the value of your property, it's an entirely different kind of story.

Wait, did I just admit it was a matter of an additional material incentive? What a greedy bastard I am! No! It's not about the basic salary, however high it is - it would change nothing. If you expect someone to fight even for the case that appears lost, you have to make sure (s)he treats this battle as hers/his. YES, there are people who can be emotionally manipulated into that (which is not ethical btw. - and reminds me of Stockholm syndrome btw.). But it's the equity share that appears as the most correct answer.

Share this post