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6.5 Take This Job and…

Learning Objective

  1. Define and consider ethical issues surrounding the decision to quit.

The Ethics of Quitting

There’s a difference between giving a few weeks’ noticeInforming an employer of plans to resign. that you’ve decided to leave your job in cold Minneapolis to try your luck in Florida, and suddenly walking out three days before the year’s most important presentation, the one your team was responsible for creating. The first scenario won’t cause many objections, but the second raises this question: what do departing workers owe employers?

If the answer is sought through a prism of fairness—through the idea that justice in the workplace requires equal treatment all around—the answer might be “not very much.” Since most work contracts offer employment only at will, employers are typically positioned to let workers go at any time for any reason that’s convenient. And they do.

When Ameritech was letting people go they would call them into a conference room and say their services were no longer needed. They would then show them to the door. Any coats or personal effects left at their desk would be shipped to them.James Carlini, “Ready to Leave? Why You Shouldn’t Give Two Weeks’ Notice,” WTN News, April 27, 2005, accessed May 17, 2011,

Especially in larger organizations where layoffs can come massively, the employee’s pleading, “You shouldn’t fire me because we just bought a house and had our first child,” isn’t going to persuade too many CEOs. If it doesn’t, it’s going to be difficult to justify the demand that employees, no matter how vital they may be to the company, come in to work when they plainly don’t want to.

It’s also true, however, that many employers extend benefits going beyond contractual obligations, and yes, some bend over backward to keep their workers on, even when it doesn’t make strict business sense. When Malden Mills burned to the ground, owner Aaron Feuerstein spent millions keeping all three thousand employees on the payroll with full benefits for months. Some asked whether he was a fool.“Malden Mills: A Study in Leadership,” Organizational Productivity Institute, Inc., Quality Monitor Newsletter, October 1996, accessed May 17, 2011, Maybe he was, but he proves that every situation is different: some employers are cutthroats, others doggedly loyal when it comes to the people doing the work.

This is the important point for anyone thinking about leaving their organization in a lurch. If the ethical justification for splitting is built on the idea of fairness—which in this case reduces to the principle that the employee owes the organization the same loyalty that the organization displays for the employee—then it’s the worker’s responsibility to ask how the organization responds to employees’ needs.

It should be underlined that this ethical attitude isn’t quite a form of turnabout is fair play: the argument isn’t so much that if a company has screwed (or not) people in the past, then they should get screwed (or not) now. The argument from fairness is simply that the weight of self-interest when set against the interests on the other side should be more or less balanced.

A different framework for considering the question of walking out on a job virtually without warning comes from the utilitarian perspective, from the idea that in any situation the morally right act is the one increasing happiness for all those involved. Looking at the question this way, workers considering leaving need to weigh their benefit from walking out against the suffering incurred by everyone else.

The “everyone else” includes the worker’s fellow employees. If a presentation really does need to be done and given in three days and you disappear, there’s just not going to be time to hire someone else and get them up to speed; those who are already there and on the project are going to have to do your share. It’s worth noting here that the concern about whether the company has previously demonstrated loyalty to its workers doesn’t arise within this perspective. What matters is a calculation of what serves everyone’s best interest now and going forward. So even if you feel no loyalty to the company—and even if the company demonstrates no loyalty to its employees—you may still decide to stay on until a more convenient separation time can be found just so that you don’t wrong those who work with you.


Everyone who’s ever worked anywhere has felt the temptation at one point or another to not just quit but to go out in flames: march into the boss’s office, let loose an avalanche of %$&^*#!, and storm out. It would feel good. But should it leave you feeling guilty afterward? Within a utilitarian scheme, the answer is “maybe not.” If ethical justification is based on the idea that the right path is the one bringing the greatest good to the greatest number, then it might just be that the release and clean break the outburst allows is worth the scene and the discomfort (or maybe the private joy) others feel about the whole thing. Of course, by the same reasoning, anyone standing outside that door and taking one last breath before storming through better consider their own long-term happiness. Probably, bawling out the boss isn’t going to help your future job-seeking prospects.

Key Takeaways

  • Most ethical issues surrounding the quitting of a job gather around those cases where the leaving is abrupt.
  • The ethics of leaving a job involves a range of people and their interests.

Review Questions

  1. If you feel as though you’ve been mistreated at work, can an ethical justification be formed for walking away at a moment of maximum pain for the company? Explain.
  2. Can you think of a kind of job or line of work where any employee could walk off at any time without ethical qualms? What characteristics of the job allow that freedom?