“I am definitely coming back to work.”
Those were famous last words that I uttered to my manager shortly before going on maternity leave with my second child. Like a good employee, I took pains to tie up as many loose ends as possible before I left; I didn’t want to be one of “those women” whose maternity leave is a burden to her colleagues.
I truly did intend to go back, but towards the end of leave, my husband and I realized that we had the means for me to try to work from home full time, which I felt it was the right choice for my family. I was excited but terrified; not just about how I’d do in my new role, but how the news would go over at work.
What was the best way to tell my employers I was leaving? I did some research and came away with conflicting, confusing information about the protocol of announcing that you’re leaving your job while on leave. Some sources said that it was my right to use my leave how I wanted but terrifyingly, I also read that in some states, employers have the right to ask their self-terminating employees to pay them back for their benefits. And many sources said that no matter what I did, I would be persona non grata with my employer. I wondered whether it would be smart to go back to work for a little while and then quit, but it seemed illogical, after starting my leave cleanly, to get back and become involved in projects, only to have to disentangle a second time.
Ultimately, by the time I fully decided I was going to quit, there were only a few weeks left of leave. A trusted friend advised that the most professional thing to do was to give my notice as soon as possible in order to give work the most time to list the job. In the meantime I felt like I was going to be sick if I didn’t just call my manager and get it over with. Then I vacillated over how to tell my manager, because I was worried about being told what a disappointment I was for quitting (I am annoyed with myself for this). Ultimately, I simply told my manager the truth.
I think I made the right call, but still the broad range of information about best practices when it comes to not going back to your old job made me wonder how HR managers see it. I spoke to four, and here was what they advised:
I wish this wasn’t the case, but because I intended to come back, when I went on leave I didn’t do a very good job learning exactly what my leave entailed, policy-wise, both in my state and at my employer.
After I quit, I spoke with Beverly Veal, the executive director of human resources at the employer I left–the University of Chicago–to get her perspective. First she set me straight on what leave meant for me–that beyond my short-term disability (which typically lasts six weeks for normal deliveries), I was using my own personal accruals. “If you don’t have vacation or personal holiday, then it’s unpaid, but that’s how that plays out. It’s not like the university is paying you. You’re using accruals that you’ve earned.”
In retrospect, I could have asked Veal pre-resignation to clarify what would happen if I hypothetically left without fear of retribution. In some companies, too, you may have an employee-based resource that might not only answer your questions but also help you find a middle ground, if you’re open to one. Renetta McCann, Chief Talent Officer at Leo Burnett, told me about a parent-resource group available at the agency. “They engage with employees who want to be engaged with, sharing experiences and stories,” she says. The self-governing group has successfully lobbied for initiatives, including one that allows employees to phase back from leave in a gradual way.
One thing executives agree on is that it is indeed better to announce your intentions sooner rather than later. Otherwise, “it leaves us in the lurch,” a CTO at a major marketing company based in Chicago told me.
As McCann explains it, “Because that is this protected space, it really is incumbent on the employee to take the initiative.” Otherwise, “We have to assume, ‘Jane Doe is coming back.’”
You’ll generate goodwill by letting your employers plan for a new hire and adjust expectations.
Does it really make a difference how you give your notice? “I feel in person is much better. It’s harder, but I think it’s a more honest conversation,” said the CTO. If not, “Yeah, it’s like breaking up by text.” I gave notice over the phone because of the distance of my commute and my manager’s work schedule, but everyone I spoke with confirmed that phone or in-person is better than email (or text). However, once the conversation has been had, put something in writing, which is appropriate no matter when or why you are resigning.
I was interested in working for my employer in a freelance capacity and thus hoped to leave a nice impression on the way out. So my manager and I worked out a four-week period after leave where I’d be back in the office to help out with lingering summer projects and finalize my transition out.
This seemed to be the right call. “The danger is that people overly focus on policy and forget about the relationship aspect,” says McCann. “If there is a way to balance policy and say, ‘What kind of relationship do I want to have with my peers there or my employer?’, that will lead people to a logical place to engage around.”
Plus, if you liked your last employer (as I did), it’s simply smart not to burn bridges—especially because, in a few months or years, you could be in different circumstances and ready to work full time again.
Finally, I needed a little bit of reassurance from the pros that resignation is just a part of business, at least to your employer. “It’s no different than if you’re quitting and going to a different job,” said the CTO in Chicago. “Everybody has anxiety about telling their boss they’re quitting; it’s just human nature.”
As for my manager, she was supportive and kind when I gave her the news. As for the weird guilt that came with quitting a job I liked, it turned out that doing what I could to make my exit gentle and professional was an excellent way of feeling less like I was letting people down and more like I was taking charge in my own career transition.