Should You Quit a Chaotic Job Right Now, or Stick It Out?

How to decide whether to try something new in this economy

By Rachel Feintzeig

Dec. 12, 2022 12:01 am ET

How do you know when it’s time to quit your job?

At some companies, things are starting to feel messy for workers. Tech firms including Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc. and Inc. are cutting jobs to prepare for economic uncertainty. Former chief executives, like Walt Disney Co.’s Robert Iger, are back to chart a new course, and new ones like Elon Musk are inciting chaos.

Sure, most workers aren’t being asked to sign a pledge that they be “extremely hardcore” or hit the road, like at Twitter Inc. But even in industries that are largely stable, a fresh inflation-fighting strategy or internal reorganization can leave you with a job that feels unfun at best and in jeopardy at worst.

This moment calls for a new kind of risk calculus. Millions of workers are quitting their jobs—4.03 million in October, according to the latest government data. The job market remains strong, but the number of openings is starting to drift lower. Workers have to analyze their current employer’s stability, their bosses’ predilections and just how green those pastures are elsewhere to make a call.

“Can I roll with this?” is the critical question to ask yourself, says Abby Davisson, who left her corporate job at Gap Inc. earlier this year. As the retailer struggled to adjust to fast-changing shopping habits over the past two years, Ms. Davisson cycled through manager after manager. By the fourth one, the change felt more draining than exciting.

A group of her fellow business-school alumni asked when she last had a really good day at work. Ms. Davisson looked hard at whether she could afford health insurance for her family on her own if she focused on her side project writing a book. She ultimately took the leap, and left.

Other people are staring down a different set of plan Bs: a buyout package, another job offer (what if that role turns out to be just as shaky as the last?) or jumping ship without a new role to land in. There are stock-option vesting schedules to think of and the possibility of last-in, first-out layoffs at your next gig.

Remember that while résumé gaps are often surmountable, they might come with some stigma, says Robert Hellmann, a New York-based career coach.

“The longer you’re out, the less perfect you are as a candidate,” says Mr. Hellmann, who provides outplacement services to laid-off workers.

Size up factors that might make it harder for you to land a new spot quickly should you leave.Have you job-hopped a lot in recent years? How in-demand is your skill-set, and how strong is your network? Could you tell a concise, upbeat story about why you transitioned?

Pinpoint your worst-case scenario if you were to make a change. Then evaluate the likelihood of that bad outcome happening, giving it a number on a one to 10 scale, Mr. Hellmann says.Ask yourself if there’s anything you can do to decrease that score. Would taking an online class to build new skills, or negotiating a good severance package, help?

Don’t forget to incorporate the costs of inaction into your decision, Mr. Hellmann adds. What are you hurting—your mental health, your marriage—by staying? What might you gain—time to rest and rethink your goals?

Chris French, a math teacher who spent this fall taking online courses about data analytics in his spare time, decided his greatest risk was not trying something new.

“Getting experience is the biggest thing,” says Mr. French, a 27-year-old in New Jersey. He figured that even if he only made it six months at a new company, having that entry on his résumé could be invaluable. Besides, he’d made ends meet before by teaching baseball lessons and delivering groceries.

“If everything were to fall apart, I can still make this work,” he reasoned. He quit his teaching job last month and went straight into a role at a financial-services firm, boosting his pay by more than 50%.

Christina Kwong, a tech worker in the Seattle area, realized she didn’t want to have to depend on big companies for a sense of stability anymore. She took a voluntary severance package last month and is weighing whether to start her own business, while looking for a corporate role that offers more flexibility and autonomy than she had before. 

“I think I would be happier determining my own fate,” she says.

Workers in the tech industry should think hard about their employer’s financial situation when considering next steps, says Keith Neighbors, an executive recruiter for startups. If your firm last got funding two years ago, or needed to have an initial public offering this year for cash flow, those are potential warning signs, says Mr. Neighbors. If your company is well-capitalized but going through restructurings and management changes, “Join the club,” he says.

“Everybody’s kind of messy right now,” he adds.

He advises workers to stay put if their company is humming along financially. The job market for tech workers is competitive, he says, flooded with folks who have been laid off or fear they might be. The companies that are still hiring are raising their standards, he adds, viewing this as an opportunity to have their pick of top talent.

Plus, if your company has trimmed staff and you’re one of the few left standing, it’s an opportunity to differentiate yourself, he says. There can be a chance for promotion amid corporate chaos.

“Double down on making the executives see you,” he says. 

If not for the economy, Darcy Gabriele suspects she would have quit her events-industry job with nothing else lined up back in July. Her company had been sold, and the executives she loved were laid off. It suddenly felt like her sales role was changing constantly. But the 32-year-old forced herself to stay put for a bit.

She started looking for other jobs while also approaching her new bosses to discuss concerns over things like her commission plan.

Several months later, with four job offers in hand and no official change to her pay structure,Ms. Gabriele handed in her notice.

“I was, like, you know what, I’m just done,” she says. “I’d taken the time to gather all the data I needed.”

Appeared in the December 12, 2022, print edition as 'When to Quit a Chaotic Job'.