I am stuck in an underpaying job (my friend was surprised with my salary) and I am seeking another job.

However, a potential large and troublesome project (it requires me to rewrite an system embedded in an access database file to Java) is coming up and I seem to be the person who could get it done. We've held a meeting with our colleagues about the project and we are still estimating the effort for the project.

Although it may be a good learning opportunity, I prefer quitting than doing it because of my salary. Is it unethical to quit now? Would it be worse if I'm searching for a job when the project might begin? I might get an offer while I am working on it too.

  • 6
    Can we assume that you're not talking about a situation that can be fixed with a few percentage points raise? If so, the real unethical behavior is not you leaving mid-project but that the employer is paying someone far below what they are worth (and expecting to get away with it).
    – Angelo
    Commented Jul 8, 2012 at 18:22
  • 7
    Why not ask for a raise before it? Commented Jul 8, 2012 at 18:59
  • 6
    You have to put #1 first. Never feel guilty about doing what is best for you. If they want employee retention then they will pay higher for their employees. Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 9:12
  • 4
    @weronika I will tell them after I have an offer in hand.....it doesn't make sense to tell them in advance Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 9:13
  • 8
    There is no such thing as "I am too important I cannot be replaced." Trust me, with enough money they can hire anybody they want for the job. It doesn't matter how difficult the job is. For you, please move on, stop feeling guilty.
    – user1672
    Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 15:11

9 Answers 9


It's certainly not unethical, anymore than it would be unethical for the employer to replace you with someone willing to work even cheaper.

In the absence of some kind of employment contract you should feel to free to job hunt on your own time, and to take another offer when and if another offer comes along.

Or just quit and go looking full time.

It is ethical to give whatever the customary notice is in your location, and it is also ethical to fully document what you have been doing at the current position before you leave.

It's always appreciated if you let the current management know you'll be available for short questions from your replacement to help him or her get going.

  • 2
    -1 for just quit and go looking full time. It your prospects are far better when you are already employed versus unemployed. You also seem to make quite a few assumptions like that the employer would be willing to replace the OP with someone just because they would work cheaper. Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 14:56
  • 5
    In no way is it unethical to leave employment. Also, you really should feel free to ask for enough money to stay. It's quite straightforward, really. If the last raise wasn't enough, ask for another. I have asked for and received some large raises with a simple procedure: determine what you'd need to stay on, then tell that number to the person who can authorize the raise.
    – Ben
    Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 17:21
  • @Chad - I made no assumptions about what the employer might do wrt to the question. I just said it would not be unethical for the employer to replace this or any employee with another candidate who would do the work for less. Likewise I said it would not be >unethical< to just quit and look for work full time. The question has nothing to do with what future prospects the OP might have. You are making a lot of assumptions on things I did not say or imply, and that are out of scope for this question. Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 19:57
  • @Ben I would have +1 that as an answer. Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 20:44

As long as you are employed there will always be a project you are in the middle of or an important one about to begin. Companies are not loyal to employees - I have seen them lay off "irreplaceable" employees the same week that the person was working 60-80 hours for the offical reason of "there is no work available." But the point is the company will do just fine without you, sure there might be a delay on a the project but that is the cost of not treating your employees well enough that they want to stay. You need to to look out for yourself and if you are paid significantly under the local average and that bothers you, then look.

Now what matters is how you leave. Give appropriate notice for your contract or locality. Leave the project in a organized way with notes to whoever will take it over concerning what you have done and have not done, documentation of all the appropriate things they will need to know such as source save location (make sure everything is checked in), a copy of the requirements, copies of emails if direction is given in them, etc.

  • 1
    This is totally true.
    – jdb1a1
    Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 15:57

The most significant factor here is your relationship with your current employer (and your explanation of why you left, should it be asked, which is likely). If you leave on any bad terms that could ruin your chance for a good reference, and leaving right when the company needs you most is certainly a bad situation for them.

To soften the blow make sure you let your previous employer know you're available if they have some small questions about the project, and leave them with as much of your knowledge as you can. Talk to them before you leave so you can get everything in order and they can cross train/document all they can before you leave.

The problem lies more in how you leave than why in this situation.

  • Do you mean I could leave anytime I want if I make it a good transition? Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 1:49
  • @gunbuster363 - If you are really the vital as you think you are, then leaving at "anytime", will damage your changes for a good reference. Of course you can leave at anytime, you work for them in exchange for money, if you want to leave that is your choice provide you give them the required notice.
    – Donald
    Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 11:37
  • +1 for The problem lies more in how you leave than why in this situation. Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 14:57

At a glance I'd say "no", but the ethics depends on the situation. You are always free to leave any company usually with some time of notice bound by your contract. It would be unethical if your company forces you to stay as that would be the same as slavery (which is strictly forbidden in many countries around the world with few exceptions). It is not your problem if your current employer has a employee retention problem.

On the other hand, leaving in the middle of a project where you are a key player is a bit sleazy and may lead to problems ahead when you're looking. Word travels fast among your colleagues within the industry and you usually have to present some references. It will become a major issue when you're hunting for jobs.

You should always discuss with your boss that you have issues with any project you're working on. Sometimes the discussion may lead to other avenues that are better for all parties involved. So think it through and "outside the box", you might find other solutions to the same problem.

If you consider to quit; remember that doing so before you've lined up a new job is risky and a bit stupid. Look for other opportunities discretely and move on when you've found something. Until then take the time to get some experience with the project (a little experience doing some brownfield work always looks good on a resume). Stick with your current situation before you are able, with full confidence, to move on.

  • 1
    There's a difference between some action being possibly career-limiting and being unethical.
    – Pointy
    Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 23:17
  • 1
    @Pointy: It is normative ethics, on what you ought to do: If ones personal goal is to not limit your career choices and then doing an action that does otherwise is per definition unethical behaviour. In this case the OP feels he ought to do it but is willing to not. Needless to say, I'm urging the OP to line up for a job before quitting, for practical reasons rather than personal ethics.
    – Spoike
    Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 7:13

I am in an almost identical boat as you. I just received a "raise" and a "promotion," but for my job title, I make about $45k less per annum then the average nationally, $35k less than peers in my region. Similarly, I am at the very end of a project that, within my organization, only I can do. I promised I would see this project through in Jan 2010. If I made a promise about finishing the project, why would I have spent the past year looking for new positions? When I promised that I would see the project through, my project schedule had me finishing in 6 months. But then my managers decided to step in and "help."

I don't feel that, by looking for new positions, I have been unethical in the slightest. When you sign on to do a project and guarantee that you won't leave until said project is complete, you take on a whole bunch of career risk that wouldn't otherwise exist. This career risk has the potential to damage you. The incompetence of my managers stretched the project out from Jan 2010 to July 2012--much more time than I had been counting on.

I wouldn't worry too much about references from the organization, either. Never once have I listed somebody as a reference that gave me a bad reference. When a future recruiter calls your current organization, due to the potential for law suits the only confirm the person's employment, dates of employment, and your salary (source).

  • 3
    You telling me your still working at a company that pays 45k dollars less then the national average and 35k less then your local peers, I find this hard to believe, since that is a big difference.
    – Donald
    Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 13:03
  • It's true, my friend, although it's a bit more complex than what I wrote in my post. Suffice to say, there was a period where my wife and I could not sell our house.
    – jdb1a1
    Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 13:11
  • I doubled my takehome pay when I took my current job 8 months ago. It's quite possible to be that horrifically underpaid.
    – Bill Blum
    Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 21:42
  • 45K less than than the national average? That is amazingly out of whack. Is that because that the purchasing power of $45K is quite small? In my locale, an $45K increase would equate to be able to afford a luxury holiday twice a year. In other locale, this equate to purchasing better clothing or schooling for the kids. So it varies.
    – tehnyit
    Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 7:28
  • @tehnyit - 45k a year is what I take home after taxes. After two years I have increase that by 25%. Its tough to figure out what the average actually is in this case. I have to remember he might not be a programmer, 45k less then the average for a programmer is like 25k per annum, which isn't that much.
    – Donald
    Commented Aug 2, 2012 at 16:56

Even if you don't subscribe to "you can quit whenever you want, you owe them nothing"....

...If you care about treating your present employer as well as possible, it's way better to quit before the project begins, then in the middle of it, when it's just about to be over, or even right after it's completed (leaving them with a codebase nobody understands but you, and you left, when bugs are surely about to be discovered).

If you don't want to be there anymore, quitting before the project begins is the kindest way to do it. Or soon after it begins, still kinder than when it's 'almost done' (famous last words), or even just completed.

  • This is not always true. It may be better to provide the framework and core of the project that someone with less knowledge can then come in and fill in the gaps. Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 14:58

There's nothing unethical about quitting under these circumstances, but before you do so, you should be sure to articulate your concerns to your employer. It's completely reasonable to say, as you have above:

"I realize I received a raise at the beginning of this year, but according to a jobsdb salary report, that raise merely put me at the bottom of the range for my position and qualifications. I need to be paid what I'm worth and so am now looking for another job. I wanted to tell you this before you had me start on that big project, so as not to leave you in the lurch halfway through. However, I do see the project as a great learning experience, so if you have the ability to bring my salary up to the average for this area, then I'd be interested in staying."

If that's how you feel, then just be honest. That's the thing most likely to preserve a good relationship with your current employer. If instead they get irritated and fire you on the spot or something, then no skin off your back, you were planning to leave anyway and you can tell future employers that you were fired for honestly explaining you were being underpaid. That's respectable.


The right approach in this case, both for the company and you, is:

  1. Calculate how much more the project would cost without you.
  2. Ask your boss for between 120% and 80% of that cost.
  3. Accept any offer between 50% and 100% and above your minimum; quit otherwise.

Now, economically speaking, both of you are better off than if you were to just quit.

  • 1
    After a replacement offer is in hand right?
    – Donald
    Commented Aug 2, 2012 at 16:59
  • 1
    I was thinking of this more as an existential truth ;) Commented Feb 5, 2013 at 10:07

First off, if you're young, who gives a flying flip about % increase of raise. All that means is they're underpaying you still

You care about parity with what you can get with leaving the job and taking a different one. 15% sounds like NOTHING compared to what you could get elsewhere.

Secondly, BEFORE a project is the perfect time to leave. Then they can not pay you to start the thing.

Lastly, go find a job before quitting.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .