Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the countless work hours for models and bottles,
Or to take back weekends against an office of czars,
And by opposing be without work? To beg: to borrow?
Well, I wouldn’t quite go that far: Hamlet wasn’t exactly talking about freeing oneself from the world of finance, but his original words can definitely be applied to the present day: To be, or not to be: that is the question.
There’s no shortage of news on the current state of the US economy and the outlook for jobs: it sucks.
To make things even worse, everyone agrees that the climate will get worse before it gets better. And if you’re in high finance, it’s arguably much worse; you have even less financial security than usual, banks are rescinding offers or freezing hiring altogether, and the work environment seems more volatile than ever before.
These days I’ve been running into more people in finance than usual who absolutely hate almost every aspect of their jobs.
Whether it’s sheer boredom from the work, (NEWSFLASH: some jobs in finance are about as intellectually stimulating as walking a straight line), disappointment in their career progression to date, their paycheck vs. their hours worked, or a maniacal boss or co-workers, everyone appears to have a well-deserved gripe.
But I usually hear nothing about the proper exit strategy from unfulfilling jobs. When I ask a person in finance who’s unhappy with their work just how long they intend to stay in their current role, I’m reminded of another popular Shakespearean quote: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…”, because they have no exit strategy.
Heads You Leave, Tails You Don’t?
If you’ve left your decision to leave to chance, you’re making a grave mistake. This is not the early 2000’s where jobs, outsized salaries, and Sony PlayStation 1’s were plentiful.
Post-Lehman, (my way of thinking about the world of finance after 2008) there’s a new reality slowly edging its way into the realm of finance: employers want better academic credentials, more experienced hires, and résumés that can rival the 7 Wonders of the World – absent of any employment gaps.
Employment gaps are almost deal-breakers in the present job market and there are too many experienced and qualified applicants out there to make frequent exceptions. Long story short, do not leave your current job unless you have a viable, actionable plan.
When to Leave and When Not to Leave
I won’t walk through what constitutes a “viable, actionable plan” in this article (maybe next time…), but I will go through some of the most common reasons why young professionals with less than 10 years of experience prematurely leave their jobs in finance.
From poor performance reviews, to the delight and perils of bonus season, to love triangles gone bad, we’ll look at a few scenarios to determine when it’s time to leave a job permanently and when it’s time to visit the local pub for a few shots of tequila (or whatever your drink of choice is) and report back to the underworld on Monday.
1) I’ve just had a poor performance review; time to leave?
When NOT to Leave: If it’s your first bad review, the answer is no.
Sometimes poor performance reviews are legitimate and deserved, but it’s up to you to determine if the comments on your performance are warranted.
If the commentary on your review is adverse but truthful, then it’s time to buckle down and work on your shortcomings. If the commentary is incorrect, then you should determine if there’s a misunderstanding regarding your role, performance expectations, or if you’re actually being sabotaged.
In either scenario, you need to pay closer attention to your work, firmly re-establish the expectations with your management team, document your performance, gain a stronger relationship with your manager(s), and try to rebound.
When to Leave: There’s an old saying that goes, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.”
If it’s your second poor review, it’s time to get out of dodge on ice skates and a jet pack. Poor consecutive performance reviews genuinely only mean two things: either there is a real mismatch between the expectations of the job and your current abilities, or your manager is the Anti-Christ and wants to deliver you to the hell hounds.
More importantly, your bonus number will fall somewhere between the change in the donation bucket of a Salvation Army worker and a pack of Trident gum.
Regardless of what led to the present situation, it’s time to reach out to recruiters, alumni, friends, and organizations to aid in your transition as swiftly as possible.
If you can hear the executioner sharpening his or her axe in the background, make a choice to leave by your own volition – sometimes you can negotiate a mutual separation that doesn’t impair your financial situation.
If it’s down to quitting or getting fired, hopefully you’ve been prudent with your finances and can stomach the few months that you may be out of work: quit.
2) My bonus was just enough for cab fare; time to leave?
When NOT to Leave: If your bonus is considerably below your expectations or industry expectations, then it’s time to put on your detective hat.
If bonuses are down across the entire firm, stay (for the time being). If bonuses are down across your department, stay (back away from the stapler). If bonuses are down across the entire Street, stay.
The theme to look for is whether or not your disappointing bonus is synonymous with what’s happening at your firm, in your department, or on Wall Street, and to avoid sudden reactions. Simply take a deep breath, determine the cause of the lower bonuses, and adopt a wait-and-see approach.
When to Leave: “Duck…duck…duck…GOOSE!”
Most of us are familiar with the popular children’s game of “Duck, Duck, Goose,” but being tapped on the head and expected to chase someone around doesn’t translate to the game of finance.
If you’ve been labeled the “goose” then there’s nothing golden about your bonus and you should give some thought to changing shops or departments. Bonus trends usually don’t reverse themselves, so it’s likely that your bonus will be similar or worse the next year.
3) I’m just not excited about my work anymore and it’s draining me – time to leave?
When NOT to Leave: Studies confirm that working in an environment that is personally unrewarding can have disastrous effects on your home life, your physical well-being, and your mental health.
Having gone through a similar experience a few years ago, I can confirm that all of those devastating effects can and do happen (another story for another day).
Sometimes you can speak with management to gain new responsibilities or exposure to a new area if they’re willing to help out – or you can ask about an internal move that can provide a more satisfying environment (keep in mind this is still finance, so don’t expect a relocation to paradise when and if you transfer internally).
When to Leave: If you find yourself unable to move to a new department or change your current role, then it may be time to look elsewhere.
Again, your financial situation should always be taken into account to determine if you need to find a more advanced role that pays more – or if you want to take on less responsibility, maintain more of a work/life balance, but yet bring home a smaller paycheck.
Your goal should always be to look for work that is more fulfilling, and if that ultimately leads to your departure from your current firm, then “Que sera, sera…”
4) I’ve lined up a buy-side job; time to leave?
When to Leave: Whether you’re someone moving from the sell-side to the buy-side or you’re moving from a back office role to a buy-side role, if there’s an opportunity that’s going to give you more exposure, better pay, and a more favorable career outlook, it’s virtually a no-brainer.
Keep in mind it’s always nice to leave AFTER bonuses are paid and to avoid leaving your former firm in an inferno (brush fires are acceptable). Buy-side gigs are highly competitive and highly-sought after, so it’s rare that a person would turn down such an opportunity (thus there’s no When NOT to Leave).
5) I’m dating more than one person in the office and they’ve found out about it; time to leave?
When Not to Leave: If you find yourself in the middle of a complex and animated love triangle, then you have no one else to blame but yourself. Boundaries are important and when you venture into uncharted territory while at work, you’ve invited trouble.
Before it gets messy, my suggestion is to separate from both parties as quickly and quietly as possible. If questions arise as to why you’re doing so, say you’re thinking about heading off to a seminary and you need as few distractions as possible. Just a suggestion…
When to Leave: If you leave work one afternoon to suddenly find your car with notable, mysterious scratches, cracked or broken windows, or perhaps your mobile phone call log as of late shows mysterious numbers with voicemail messages that can only be described as deep, heavy breathing, then not only is it time to leave, but a police restraining order may also be in order.
6) I just got into business school; time to leave?
When NOT to leave: If you’ve gotten into business school, congratulations… assuming you’ve conducted your research and are financially and mentally prepared for the journey – and that you’ll actually make more money after you finish your degree (you’d be surprised how many people overlook this fact).
Luckily, if you’re already in finance then this will almost certainly be the case – your mileage in other fields may vary. At this point, the question is no longer if you should leave, but when you should leave. Wait for your bonus to hit your bank account, and then “making it rain” on your way out of the office.
When to Leave: Assemble a report of your current financial situation and budget accordingly. Even if the numbers don’t work, heck, do it anyway!
I would suggest leaving about 3 to 4 months before the start of business school to put together a small bucket list: one month to visit family, two months for travel, (central-western Italy, Martinique, and any place in southeast Brazil are personal favorites) and one month to recover and get into a graduate school state of mind.
7) I just won the lottery; time to leave?
I really hope you’re not expecting an answer to this question. Seriously?
DISCLAIMER: In no way is this article telling you to leave your job immediately if you are unhappy. Leaving your job is a decision to be made solely by you and should take into account your mental and financial stability pre and post your departure in addition to your immediate future plans. You’ve been thoroughly warned.