Lessons from JetBlue’s Steven Slater: how to leave a lousy job without torpedoing a bridge

Posted August 17, 2010 in Career Management, Communication, Latest News & Insights

The big news from last week was JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater.  Slater made global headlines after pulling the ultimate employee hissy fit after a passenger gave him a hard time.  After hurling obscenities at the passenger through the intercom, Slater grabbed a couple of beers and leapt out of the plane by deploying the emergency slide.  In a post-script, passengers have since come forward to say that he was the one with the bad attitude and JetBlue execs are having a hard time finding anyone who will corroborate his story.  On the upside, a reality tv show is being talked about.  All this drama made us wonder… does torpedoing a career bridge ever make sense?

When news broke about Steven Slater’s meltdown, many a water cooler conversation admired the “take-this-job-and-shove-it” gusto to which he exited his post.  55% of people who completed an NBC news poll cited Slater as a “hero”.  (24% thought he was just plain crazy).

Pulling a “Slater” is a fantasy that’s probably crossed most people’s minds at one time or another, but for leaders who’ve invested years in building their career reputations, the high from that quick moment of “stickin’ it to the man” probably isn’t worth it… unless you’re planning on leaving your field altogether and setting up a pottery studio in the BC interior.

For those not into the Steven Slater career suicide approach, here are our thoughts on how to exit gracefully when you’ve hit the wall:

  1. Vent out the emotions… before doing anything, find a friend and ask them to give you ten minutes of listening time to let you vent out every horrible, nasty thing you ever wanted to get off your chest about this stinking miserable job that you’re going to be leaving.  There.  Doesn’t that feel better? If not, repeat process until your head is clear.
  2. Keep it professional… when the time comes to tender your resignation, keep it simple, straightforward and professional.  Don’t try to over explain and (given that most people quit because of their relationship with their boss) don’t bother trying to offer any “constructive” feedback to your boss at this point.  Save that for the exit interview (if there is one).
  3. Keep your nose clean… once you’ve handed in your resignation notice, continue to deliver 100% on your commitments.  Remember, your last impression will be your legacy.  Don’t blow a great track record with a lousy final few weeks.
  4. Don’t bad mouth your employer… even if you worked for the worst boss in the world, take the high road and don’t stoop to slinging mud on your way out.  It only makes you look bitter.  Plus, the people left behind aren’t going to thank you for the encouraging words.
  5. Maintain strong relationships with external contacts… as a build on number 5, you may be worried that you’ll take the fall on some bad decisions that your bad boss is making.  Work hard during your final weeks to make sure your external contacts have nothing but great impressions of working with you.  Even if your boss does try to sabotage your reputation, they’ll have their own experiences to judge you by.
  6. Don’t bad mouth your former employer… this is worth repeating… especially if the boss is a triple jerk.  Industries are small and, in my experience, jerk bosses seem to be powerfully adept at managing their external reputations.  Don’t get into a mud-slinging contest that you might not win.
  7. Put a bow on it… make sure you complete all your deliverables and leave people with as much information on any outstanding items as you can.  They’ll remember you going the extra mile to make the transition smooth.
  8. Be constructive… if you have the opportunity to provide feedback during the exit interview, be as constructive as possible.  Emphasis on the word “constructive”. Don’t use it as an opportunity to take parting personal pot-shots at your former employer.  They probably won’t make a difference and may only give your boss the ammo they need to reinforce that you were really the problem, not them.
  9. For extra bonus points… provide a one week transition where people can call if you if they have questions.  But, only for a week.  After that, you need to let them move on without you.  Set that line clearly in the sand from the beginning.

It’s possible that, over the span of your career, you may find yourself in at least one untenable employment situation.  Before you deploy the emergency slide and hurl abuse at bystanders on your way out, take a deep breath, phone a friend, get a 3rd opinion and then either move forward to either pull that “Slater” with gusto or take a more measured approach to finding your next big thing.

Happy leading!


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2 Comments

  1. Kevin says:

    This is a great list of suggestions. I wrote a piece about Slater from a totally different perspective for leaders… It might be a nice companion read to these ideas. http://blog.kevineikenberry.com/uncategorized/steven-slater-leadership-coach/

    Enjoy – and thanks!

    Kevin 🙂

    • LeaderTalker says:

      Hi Kevin… thanks for pointing me to your great blog. I’ll be sure to add you to our blogroll. And, thanks for sharing your comment with us (I tried to comment on your site but it kicked me off… something about “cookies”… hmmmm). Anyway, I found your perspective on “disengagement” really interesting. I’m a big fan of Dan Pink’s first book “Free Agent Nation”. One of his observations is that most organizations still have processes in place that model the industrial age (ie: in exchange for you free will, we will provide you with a job for life). Given the death of that concept, organizations (for the most part) haven’t adjusted tactics. We say it often, but we don’t see enough: dialog, discussion, collaboration, shared success between employees and employers. Mostly because we don’t know how to do it. Personally, I’m not sure that Slater was disengaged. I think he was probably completely burnt out. I work primarily with fast tracking mid-career executives and I’m constantly amazed at the pressure they are under in this world of instant results/gratification. Technology and increased expectations are driving a pace that is hard to keep up with. What I don’t see organizations do is provide the support systems in place to help people step out of the daily grind to assess what’s really important/true. In my coaching work, I often feel that the most important thing I provide clients is space… space to reflect and evaluate what’s really going on. I doubt Steven Slater had any opportunity to step back and process the (likely) hundreds of customer abuses that built up to this one moment of meltdown. My observation is that most organizations continue to fire fight when it comes to managing people issues. They’re not at all proactive. Tools like coaching, training, mentoring are all seen to be for “remedial” performers. Anyway, I could rant on about this for pages. 🙂 Thanks so much for finding us and contributing to the discussion. Look forward to reading more of your great posts (and to figuring out how to comment directly!)