For the sake of clarity let me qualify a term:

Broken Workplace - Mechanically, the team is not functioning as it should. Due to poor leadership, or morale, or competition, whatever (in reality they're all obviously intertwined). A "broken" workplace is one you dread to show up at because it is genuinely fubar and everyone else in the industry you've talked to agrees.

Successful people seem to understand a basic fight / flight principle in the workplace: when to get out and when to dig your heels in.

Personally, when I'm in a broken workplace (or really any situation) my instinct is to try and solve the problem. Usually it's a leadership thing, and the stem of the problem can be traced back to a small handful of factors. Successfully sticking around and trying to humbly act as a catalyst toward positive change is a long, uphill battle that in big companies can take decades.

Are there any specific, measureable conditions under which (barring HR issues) you should definitely quit because of a "broken" workplace? How do you know when it's a hopeless uphill battle? Or is it entirely dependent upon your willingness to lead?

Please realize this is a specific question. Possible answers would probably be of the form:

  • No, there are not specific conditions, it's up to you and your specific circumstance
  • Yes, in fact it's fairly measurable that workplaces with "X" attributes are ones you should definitely leave.
  • You're asking the wrong question / misunderstanding this dynamic and here is why ...


I'm not in this situation, nor do I anticipate being in this situation anytime soon, but it's been a topic I've recently been reading about online and listening to in podcasts.

4 Answers 4


The key to your question is the "barring HR issues" -- deciding when to leave when "HR issues" are a factor is easy. For example, if you are trying to be a change agent and you know you need to hire or fire people, and HR says "nope, can't do either of that", well, there's your answer -- you are specifically barred from changing things, so moving on is the only option.

But when there aren't removable barriers in your way, the answer truly is "it's up to you." However, I would note that you have a false dichotomy in your question -- the opposite of a hopeless situation due to HR (or other unmovable barriers) isn't "willingness to lead". There's a lot that goes on between those two positions.

For example, I spent an entire year working for an organization that had HR barriers to clear fixes (we couldn't hire anyone -- no money -- and it was very difficult to fire anyone due to state regulations), but a significant number of paths to go down as a manager to try to change the environment. In the particular situation I was in, I had an extreme desire to lead, and by all accounts (my manager's, my manager's manager, HR, external reviewers, and so on) was doing everything "right", but simply had a number of employees who did not want to be led.

I gave that situation a year to work out, but when I had the organization's head of HR say to me "It's time to give up. It is impossible to be a change agent here, and it's not your fault", that's when I believed it was "ok" to move on.

Others might have reached that point 6 months earlier, some 6 months later, but the point is that it was not something that directly correlated to anything else. I wish it were that easy, but as that same HR person said to me, "Being a change agent is hard, no matter where you are. When it comes down to it, it's an entirely soft skill."


Specific, measurable conditions when you should quit?

  1. Pay check bouncing - I don't know if you would consider this an HR issue or a management issue.

  2. Taxes aren't being paid - If payroll, sales taxes and other corporate taxes aren't being paid this will mean trouble for all.

  3. Vendors aren't being paid - When your company car gets repo'ed or the office power gets turned off you should be ready to leave.

  4. Severe legal/ethical problems. For example, if you're being asked or pressured into falsifying information (aka lying to customers or vendors), provide a false disposition in a lawsuit and the like.

  5. Management/Owners taking excessive money out of the company, preventing it from growing and/or dealing with problems. Moderate profit taking is fine but gutting the company to pay off gambling debts isn't. You have to judge the situation as best you can here.

  6. Excessively negative work environment. You might term this an HR issue since it deals with harassment and such. But, if you're being bullied at work and the person doing the bullying is skilled enough to avoid stepping over the HR line, you should move on. Life is too short to deal with jerks like this for long.

  7. When a company is about to be bought out by another company. You can almost be certain that they already have "a you" at the other company and you'll be forced out anyway within the year.

  • I think the question is asking about what you talk about in #6. He's asking a cultural/environmental question, not the broader doomed-company question. (Or so I understand, anyway.) Jun 6, 2012 at 14:43
  • Was in a company that went through 1-3 in sequence, with a possible 4. They went out of business about 14 months after the first paychecks started bouncing. (2 might have actually been first - they shut down due to significant unpaid taxes).
    – Iiridayn
    Jun 11, 2012 at 16:07

First of all, how likely is it that your efforts will lead to solving the problem. If the organization is:

  • Huge
  • Old and broken yet still staying in the black in spite of itself
  • A Champion of Mediocrity - people come here to take 20-year career naps
  • Has absolutely zero uphill accountability

Forget it. There's nothing you can do. The old maxim of worrying only about the things you can control doesn't mean you'll be happier, it means you'll have a clearer understanding of what things that make you miserable are things you can do something about and when it's time to GTFO.

Trying to fight the good fight when it's already lost is just a recipe for getting more miserable and burning bridges in my experience. You identify an unacceptable problem you can't fix, you tell your superiors you find it unacceptable and you start looking for a new job. Maybe they'll surprise you and do something about it. Most likely not, however.

I'd ask myself the following:

  • Assuming I'm successful, how much time/effort would likely be required?
  • Assuming I'm successful, how much better will it really be to work here?
  • How queasy do I feel about the odds when assuming success?
  • Is my problem actually a symptom of a much larger problem that nobody can solve? i.e. Is it likely the old problem will slowly come back or be replaced by a similar but equally awful problem?
  • Considering all of the above, is there any reason not to just go out and find a new damn job?

Wanting to solve every problem placed at your feet is a noble instinct, IMO, but staying in a crappy work environment with little hope of effecting positive change just because you're stubborn and want to solve the problem rarely ends well. It's psychic self-mutilation. Some corporate cultures measure change in the same units people cultures do. Decades.


Forget about the job, the job is just a means to an end (Money). Bottom line is happiness. If trying to fix something that is broken gives you this then stay. if it does not then leave.

Me, if I think that something is broken and the situation is hopeless. I just leave. Its just a waste of time and makes you unhappy.

If your the employee and you suffer from poor management, just get out of there, your fighting a loosing fight, not the good fight.

If you are the bad manager, just get out of there, your causing problems and making people unhappy. If you see someone running away from you, as you approach them, your really bad or have a bad relationship that can not be fixed. Leave (tactical retreat) :).

If there is low morale...its usually based on money not being paid or not in enough quantity. forget the cakes, and feel good fridays, just pay more money, the morale will soon pick up.

if its competition and you as a fighting unit are up to the fight then go for it, sounds like a hoot. Better always to fight and do your best than to run away. But this only works if as a unit your got your A game on and not holding any dead weight, if you got dead weight cut em off. If as a team your not up to the task, then give up and run away (tactical retreat I think they call it :))

  • Hardly about the money. Any job will pay you enough to survive (usually), but I have never noticed the satisfaction I have at work correlate to what I'm paid. As long as I get to create things and help other people create things, and seek perfection in doing so, I'm content. Maybe that answers my question though... IDK, there are definitely days where I don't feel that way, and it's more of a utilitarian exercise. But that's hardly at the center.
    – Paul Hazen
    Jun 6, 2012 at 0:53
  • 1
    Work is as work does. Depends on how much of a slave you are to the dollar, money makes fools of us all. Jun 6, 2012 at 1:00

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