After years of staying put in jobs that may have been uninspiring, unrewarding or even flat-out soul-crushing, more Americans are choosing to say sayonara to their current place of work. The Labor Department reported recently that 3.1 million people voluntarily quit their jobs in December, the highest number in nine years.
For most people, any pent-up frustration they experienced will be kept under wraps, with gracious exit interviews, polite resignation letters and cordial send-off cocktails before they're finally set free. But every once in a while, a few aspiring Lester Burnhams or Jerry Maguires decide not to go away quietly at all.
They make videos that explode online (think of that famous "I quit" video stunt). They CC everybody with lengthy email tirades (recall that Whole Foods employee's 2,300-word missive reported by Gawker). They write epic tear-downs of their companies in major newspapers, publicly resigning in the process (don't forget Goldman Sachs employee Greg Smith's op-ed in the New York Times).
In today's world, they've become cultural touch points of a sort, emblematic not only of social media's democratic megaphone and star-making power, but of our desire to live vicariously through others' kamikaze career stunts. (Which is alluring enough, of course, that the genre has even produced its own hoaxes.)
But savage, "truth bomb" resignation letters, as British author Matt Potter calls them, are also hardly a post-viral meme phenomenon. Potter's 2014 book, "The Last Goodbye," recently updated and published in the United States last week, includes a fascinating romp through some of history's most ferocious exit missives — written or otherwise.
Resignation letters "tell a secret story of our own time," Potter writes. "You notice the patterns — how they blossom and cluster around economic curves, wars, new technologies; how they change when society changes. Without noticing, when we write ourselves out of a story, we plug into something larger than ourselves."
A few of his favorites include Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner's resignation letter as postmaster of the University of Mississippi in 1924. "As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people," Faulkner wrote. "But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp. This, sir, is my resignation."
Or Geoffrey Howe, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's longtime deputy, who was known to be her diplomatic and exceedingly polite sidekick. "Somebody once said that being berated or attacked by him in the Houses of Parliament was a little like being savaged by a dead sheep," Potter said in a phone interview.
But over time, Potter writes, Howe got angry enough amid Thatcher's statement that Britain would "never" go for monetary union with Europe that he resigned — first in a letter in which he openly criticized her and then publicly in Parliament. In a species of resignation Potter calls the "insider hit," Howe made a reference to the game of cricket, saying that working with Thatcher "is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain."
Ever since then, Potter writes, "doing a Geoffrey Howe" has become a "byword for the parliamentary hit job."
Then there are the sign-offs too crude to repeat in a family newspaper. When Republic of Ireland soccer team captain Roy Keane effectively resigned in the dressing room during the 2002 Japan/Korea World Cup, his tirade against manager Mick McCarthy was described by a teammate as the "most surgical slaughtering I've ever heard," heavily salted with unprintable words. "He was prepared to slam the door shut and basically damn his team to failure," Potter said.
Such epic exits are, of course, inadvisable for nearly everyone, and it's obvious that the vast majority of those 3.1 million people who the Labor Department said quit in December won't be doing anything of the sort.
Meanwhile, understanding what was really behind these moments of emotional eject-button pushing isn't easy to do. Did that famous JetBlue flight attendant who slid down a plane's emergency chute with beer in hand really intend to quit, or was it a response prompted by deeper personal issues? How many public sign-offs are driven by giving a boost to their next career step or finding Internet stardom? And after incendiary exits, how much of that fire holds up? (One review of Greg Smith's book about Goldman Sachs said it had "little worth telling.")
Still, Potter believes, they're a reminder that quitting isn't a meek step — it can be a pretty powerful act.
"We all think of quitters as they've left the field, they couldn't cut it," he said. But that definition is changing, "as much by people saying 'No, we're not going to do it anymore,' as by people going 'Uh-uh, just not on your team.' "
Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post's On Leadership section.