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I'm a programmer and I'm trying to understand why quitting without having a job matters so much.

For me cash flow is not an issue - I have more than enough to live off of for 5+ years and in any case I can just meet the bills every month with part-time playing of poker.

Is it bad because of my working versus not-working bargaining position with new employers? Or is it seen somehow as some behavioral problem with me? Or are they simply assuming I lied about quitting to hide being fired - can't they verify by calling HR? Should I get a signed resignation letter to avoid this problem?

Why is quitting without having a new job lined up seen so negatively by employers?

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Some may feel that it's difficult to get much leverage over someone that's independently wealthy. Personally, I have no problems with that sort of person. –  Spehro Pefhany Apr 18 at 2:30
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8 Answers 8

There are a few points that usually come and I'd address in an interview with someone who has been out of work for a while.

  1. How have you kept your skills current?
    Even a short break away from doing things day to day can result in a long spin up time. Obviously the impact depends on the job. If you going into a high level job and need to hit the ground running, then it can be an issue.
  2. Why did you leave without another job?
    Saying you had enough cash to meet the day to day will be seen as negative. It's a complete non-answer and would make me assume there is another reason for leaving.
    Valid reasons I've seen have included everything from I was taking a long holiday and didn't want to leave the employer in the lurch, to I decided to try working part-time on my own. Expect some follow ups to the working on your own.
  3. Will this person need the job?
    Yes this is a 'stupid' point, but lots of employers think like this. It's much better to have people who work because they like the job, but knowing someone needs the job seems to let some managers sleep better at night.
  4. Are you picking this job because you 'need' it, or because you 'want' it?
    Related to Q3. One big problem with hiring people out of work is that lots of times they are just applying for anything to get cash flow in and will accept whatever job comes first. This can result in them moving to another job within a few months.
    Interviewing correctly should detect this, but it doesn't always.
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+1 for 'How have you kept your skills current?' –  yochannah Apr 18 at 12:35
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Saying you had enough cash is only a partial answer to "Why did you leave without another job?" (not a non-answer, and not necessarily negative - on the contrary, I'd actually see not having enough cash as a major negative - it's irresponsible). If the other part is "I enjoy staying at home more than any job I can have" (which is probably true for many, but not reason enough to leave), then that's definitely bad, as you're likely to leave again for little/no reason once you get your savings up. However, there are many reasons that should be okay. –  Dukeling Apr 18 at 22:24

The simple answer is that if you could walk out on the last job with nothing to go to, you may do it in this job, probably at a point that's costly or inconvenient to the new employer.

They probably get a false sense that they'll be forewarned if you have to get a new job first (even if only by the signs you are going to interviews).

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Why is quitting without having a new job lined up seen so negatively by employers?

All employers are different. Some don't care about people quitting jobs without having a new one lined up, others do. And for those who do care, there are probably several reasons. Let me give you a few reasons why I don't like to see people quite before having a new job lined up.

For me, it's a signal that work isn't very important to you. I like to hire people who consider work as an important thing - in my experience they make better professionals (your mileage may vary). Particularly in the economy as it is today, there are plenty of people who are really motivated to work - and motivation goes a long way toward success.

Every company, and every job, has it's ups and downs. It's fun when everything is going well, not so much fun when things get tough. As a hiring manager, I want to hire people who won't bold as soon as things get difficult, but will work hard to help make things better again.

In some circumstances people leave jobs to take it easy for a while and collect unemployment. That's not how I like to see my tax money spent.

When I hire permanent employees, I spend a lot of time and effort interviewing and training them, in order to get them to the point of full productivity. I don't want to waste that time and effort on someone who might decide to leave after a short period of time. People who have done it before may be more likely to do it again.

At some point, most people start to feel financial pressure to get back to work. Perhaps the poker playing isn't working out so well, perhaps the family situation changes, perhaps unexpected bills arise. In those cases, it gets hard to turn down a less-than-good-fit, and it's tempting to just take any job. Thus, in general I don't think it's smart to be very casual about quitting before lining up the next gig - and I like to hire really smart people.

None of these may apply to you or your next potential employer. But based on your question I'm guessing you sense that it is indeed seen as a negative by at least some potential employers. If you choose to ignore that potential negative anyway, that may say something (good or bad) about you in some employers' eyes.

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"I don't want to waste that time and effort on someone who might decide to leave after a short period of time. People who have done it before may be more likely to do it again.". seems like you're assuming the op left after a short amount of time. I don't see the correlation between quitting before you have a new job and length of time spent at the previous job. –  Andy Apr 26 at 1:07

This is very much a signaling problem. Employers are looking for attributes in candidates that are very difficult to demonstrate in an interview. So they are looking for signals that are relatively easy for candidates that have those attributes to send but relatively difficult for candidates that don't have those attributes to send. These signals can be useful even when they are far from perfect by helping the interviewer increase their odds of making a good hire. Resigning a job with nothing else lined up is generally a very poor signal because it often indicates something negative but hard to prove.

Resigning in this manner often signals prior poor performance because resignations come in very different forms. Organizations are generally very slow to actually fire white collar workers like programmers that aren't pulling their weight. Managers dislike the confrontation, the employee is generally making some contribution so letting them go makes the manager's near-term job harder, dismissals often negatively affect the morale of the remaining team members who are now anxious about whether their job is on the line, etc. Many organizations end up suggesting to the employee in increasingly direct terms that they ought to consider resigning. Often, by the time a programmer resigns, they were effectively fired. The resignation was just a convenient way for the employee to save face and for the manager to arrange an orderly transition of responsibilities. If a hiring manager looks at the resume of someone that resigned without having another job lined up, the presumption is that the candidate resigned in lieu of being fired.

Of course, it's possible to rebut that presumption. A reason that seems compelling to the interviewer, as @HLGEM suggests, is one way to rebut the presumption. A glowing reference from the previous employer is another. A call to HR is likely only to produce the dates that you were employed and your title, HR isn't going to say whether you were a top performer that left entirely voluntarily or whether you were a mediocre performer that saw the writing on the wall and resigned ahead of the axe. Your previous manager might be in a position to make that distinction but many companies have a policy that prevents previous managers from confirming more than HR would.

Resigning this way also tends to signal a lack of responsibility. If you can support yourself playing poker, I'll wager that you have a vastly larger tolerance for risk than the average person. That means that the people that are interviewing you are going to be viewing your actions through their much more risk-averse eyes. To those eyes, resigning a good job with no immediate prospect of another job on the horizon is a terribly risky move. That's particularly true when you realize that their financial cushion (which will generally be part of their calculus) is likely to be much more tenuous than yours apparently is. Most people can't afford to go without a paycheck for 5 years without seriously draining their retirement funds. And most people would be miserable if they became unemployed for even a month or two while drawing down their cash reserves even if they had them. Since your actions appear much riskier to the interviewer than they do to you, both because of your appetite for risk and because of your knowledge of your actual financial position, interviewers would tend to fear that you'd have much more tolerance for risk in your working life than they would deem reasonable.

Then, there are the issues that others pointed out. Employers generally want people that are passionate about what they do. They want people that are dedicated to the companies they work for. And they want people whose skills are up to date. Someone that walks away from a similar job to take a break for months or even years is someone that may be lacking one or all of these attributes.

This isn't to say that you actually lack any of these qualities, of course. But from the hiring manager's standpoint, a resignation with no job lined up certainly increases the probability that a candidate has some sort of latent defect. As a poker player, I'm sure you're accustomed to trying to infer an opponent's private information (their hole cards in poker, their actual work habits in the interview process) based on their public actions (when and how they bet in poker, their decisions about when and how to leave a job in the interview process). In any given interaction, you can be fooled easily enough. But over time, if you're playing the percentages, you'll make more correct decisions if you factor those signals into your estimates.

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I'm not sure it is a negative from the employers POV. Having a job is a positive, it means that someone who is in a position to judge, most likely thinks you are worth the money you are getting. But there are no guarantees.

And there are offsetting considerations, not having a job means that you can start immediately, and you are less likely to be demanding a top salary for the position.

What the interviewer will value more, depends upon them, but I would guess that in most cases it is a minor factor at most.

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@user17551 Yes, they do expect you to be less likely to demand a top salary. And it kind of makes sense: someone who doesn't currently have a job, desperately needs one so that they can pay the bills, buy food etc. This is therefore not a strong negociating position. You say you have plenty of money saved, but most people don't have that financial security. –  Radu Murzea Apr 18 at 8:24
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@RaduMurzea: having plenty of money wouldn't really change the expectation -- if you have enough for multiple years, then money isn't why you are looking for a job. OTOH, the base expectation is that anyone with a job is going to want more than their current job in order to switch. –  jmoreno Apr 18 at 14:44

How do you know that is why they are rejecting you? It is perfectly possible that they are asking you a question about why you left and you are assuming that is why you are not chosen. But the chances are you will be asked that question. It is the answer that is important not the question. There are also many other reasons why you might not be chosen and companies will virtually never tell you exactly why you were not chosen.

I would expect that most interviewers would want to know the reason why you left and would look to see if you have a pattern of leaving after a short time in muliptle jobs. Those things can be overcome but they depend on why you left and how legitimate that reason is to the interviewer. The number of jobs you have left without another job could be a factor as well.

Their concerns are that you are someone who can't work anywhere that is not perfect and no job is perfect. Why should they take the risk on you - you have to give them a reason to do so.

So first look at how you answer that question. If you are saying something negative about the previous employer that is not entirely understandable (and ina realtively neutrol tone) then you have failed the question and may not get the job.

If you quit for a flightly reason or because you got angry or when the timing was especially bad, then they will likely heavily discount you as a possible employee. Who wants someone who leaves the week before launch because he wasnts to go hike the mountains in the Himalayas. Who can predict when you might get it into your head to decide to take a 3 month trip to Antartica and quit. Who wants the guy who quits every time things don't go his way? Project managers are not thrilled about hiring someone they think won't be there for the long haul.

If you quit because they were planning a layoff and you knew you financialy could survive better than some of the others, that would be ok. If you quit becasue you had a sick spouse to take care of, that would be ok if you let them know the sickness problem is fixed. If you quit because you needed to start maternity leave early due to pregnancy related complications and they told you to quit or be fired, that would be acceptable unless they were also the kind of company who wouldn't work around an employee's personal problems. If working conditions were such that you could not continue to work there and these same working conditions sound horrific to the person interviewing you, then you might be ok as long as you talk about it terms of how these conditions were and why it wasn't a good fit for you and not bad mouth the company.

Quitting because you were working too many hours to look for another job is a case in point. If you are interviewing at another place where they think working 90 hour weeks is acceptable, they will reject you if you say that (and hey wouldn't you really rather that they did?). But if you tell some place that expects 40-50 hour weeks from you that you couldn't handle physically working 90 hours weeks every week, the person is likely to be more sympathetic. But if you say "Company X was a sweatshop and I hated every minute I working for those jerks", then, not so much.

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IMO it's a double-edged sword. The way I look at it, to quit without having a new job lined up means there must be something terribly wrong with the company you are leaving, because such an action is generally very high risk to the person leaving. As a hiring company my first question (not necessarily to the interviewee) would be "What on earth could that place have done to make someone quit without another job?".

However, some companies look at it as meaning you aren't reliable, and that you'll quit if things go south despite the fact quitting without another job lined up, as stated above, generally means something really terrible is going on. In such a case it is seen negatively, but I would argue a place that sees it negatively without finding out the circumstances behind it is giving the interviewee a red flag.

I have left a job or two without having another one lined up, but it's only been in dire circumstances when, for example, the job has been grossly misrepresented or was so unbearably toxic that it was better to quit than deal with the abuse on a daily basis. In any case I would strongly reconsider an employer that held this against me, because to me that would mean they might exhibit some of the same symptoms (which is why they hold it negatively; if you say "My job was extremely toxic and I was verbally abused every day" to someone who does just that, of course they're going to hold it against you).

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Not all employers see it that way, just the ones you seem to be interviewing.

You might have bad work habits: 'living off playing poker' for part time is a hint. If you have that kind of independence it makes more sense to build a portfolio of software products that would impress someone. One danger of not working is that you may be falling behind on professional development.

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I edited this a bit so it doesn't sound like you're trying to seek clarification because I don't think seeking clarification is what you meant to do. If there's ever a case where there's not enough detail in a question for you to answer, please ask questions in the comments first to get the information you need from the asker. Hope this helps. –  jmort253 Apr 19 at 15:44

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