Thriving on Both Sides of the ‘Great Resignation’

The current labor market offers workers newfound leverage, raising questions of whether to seek change or stay put. Below is some food for thought to make the most of whichever path you might choose.

By Sarvenaz Myslicki, SWE Editorial Board Chair

With the Great Resignation showing no signs of slowing down,1 more employees are finding themselves on two sides of the same coin: a career in flux. On one side, those who resign are intentionally seeking change. On the other side, those who stay behind may find change thrust upon them. For example, a junior engineer who is asked to complete senior-level work on an understaffed team, or a team operating without a manager while the position is backfilled.

Fortunately, both sides of the Great Resignation come with great opportunities. An external job change can accelerate your learnings and your earnings. Meanwhile, positioning yourself well internally can fast-track your career progression. The question isn’t just, “Should I stay or should I go?” but, “How do I thrive in either situation?”

With these two questions in mind, let’s dive into the first option: staying with your current company.

Pros and cons of staying

Benefits of Staying: In a time where more workers are deciding to leave, employees who don’t have to start fresh will find themselves at an advantage. They will have the expertise and momentum to make a larger immediate impact, which can translate into higher performance reviews, bonuses, and other recognition. At the same time, employees who have demonstrated high potential may become top candidates for roles that have been vacated. Employees may also find that they have more negotiation power than before, allowing them to advocate for themselves and drive positive change within their companies.

Drawbacks of Staying: On the flip side, one of the biggest risks to career growth is not taking risks! Staying in a role that has stagnated and no longer allows you to learn and grow can be worse than taking on a new role that turns out to be different from what you expected. If you stay in a role that has no plans for expansion and generally runs “business as usual,” you may find yourself quickly falling behind your overall industry — both in knowledge and in pay.

Ideal Conditions for Staying: If the roles that are being vacated in your company are being filled predominantly through internal candidate promotions, that is a great sign that the company is looking to invest in developing its future leaders. Another positive sign is if leaders are encouraging their team members to pursue internal opportunities, despite the short-term disruptions that would cause to their own teams. Finally, it’s always encouraging when a company actively seeks employee feedback and implements change as a result.

Thriving if You Stay: Reflect on your short-term career goals and identify ways that you can fast-track your growth. If you’ve had your eye on a project, role, or set of responsibilities that recently opened up, talk to your manager about being considered for it. Worst case, you get valuable feedback on why you’re not quite ready, and even that can set you on a path toward growth. If you find that your salary is below market average, or you’d like to shift to a more flexible work arrangement, now is the time to bring that up!

Next, let’s look at the second option: deciding to take on a role with a different company.

Infographic by Ambika Dubey. Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. Methodology: Retrieved seasonally adjusted data for total separations, quits, layoffs and discharges, and other separations for all non-farm industries in the US. Used 2018 - 2021* data for graphs and analysis. *All 2021 data is from January to November, including the projected values for November as of January 2022.

Pros and cons of leaving

Benefits of Leaving: A common benefit for taking an external opportunity is increased compensation. Another benefit that has emerged is flexible work arrangements, which can grant increased work/life balance if your current employer doesn’t offer this option. A more long-term benefit is the chance to expand your network. As long as you leave your prior company on good terms, you will be able to retain your existing network and build out an entirely new set of connections.

Drawbacks of Leaving: The risk of starting fresh is … you’re starting fresh! Prior research2 has found that new hires receive lower performance reviews for one to two years after joining a new company. You may also find your timeline for upward movement has been “reset” until you can prove yourself at the new company. In addition, when employees leave a company with one benefit in mind (e.g., salary) but neglect to consider other factors (e.g., company culture), they may find themselves prioritizing short-term gains at the cost of longer-term fulfillment.

Ideal Conditions for Leaving: If you’re being asked to permanently take on more work without an elevated title or pay increase, this could be a sign that your company is not making the necessary investments to fix attrition and retention issues. Similarly, if any extra, temporary support you provide is not being recognized, or you’re “blocked” from internal movement (e.g., your boss sees you as “too critical to the team”), your efforts may not lead to any meaningful career growth. Finally, if your benefits and compensation are no longer competitive, and you’re unable to negotiate an adjustment, an external move may be your best opportunity to earn your worth.

Thriving if You Leave: As with any new role, you’ll want to put together a robust plan for your first 90 days. Be prepared to join a team that is just as much in flux as the one you left. If your new team is short staffed, your onboarding may not be as thorough, and there could be fewer experienced team members to mentor you. However, you can make a great first impression by enhancing these processes and quickly becoming a contributing member of the team.

How to embrace either decision

Regardless of the decision you make, it can be hard to shake “what if” scenarios. Those who stay may feel like they’ve missed out on unknown opportunities. To those I say, let yourself look! See what roles are available externally and test your interviewing skills to fully understand your value in the market. Those who leave may miss their old team or initially regret their decision. This feeling often goes away once the initial discomfort fades and you become better acquainted with your team. If three to six months pass and the role isn’t what you expected, however, talk to a trusted mentor and share what you’re going through. They can help you plan a path forward, even if it involves returning to your prior company. In this market, there is a good chance they are hiring!

Sarvenaz Myslicki has been an avid member of SWE for more than a decade. She has held leadership positions at the section and Society levels and currently serves as chair of the editorial board. A vice president of engineering at American Express, Myslicki holds a B.S. and M.S. in computer science, as well as an executive MBA.

Endnotes:

1. Liu, J. A Record 4.4 Million People Quit in September as Great Resignation Shows no Signs of Stopping. Make It, CNBC.com, Nov. 12, 2021. 

2. Why External Hires Get Paid More, and Perform Worse, than Internal Staff. Knowledge@Wharton, University of Pennsylvania, March 28, 2012. 

Editor’s Note: Please see this issue’s Career Pathways column, “Preparing for a COVID-era Opportunity: How to Handle a Promotion over One’s Peers.”

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