August 22, 2017

Career Advice

Burning Bridges and Lessons from Peter Gibbons

By: Claire Kittle Dixon

Have you ever wanted to tell your boss to take a long walk off a short cliff or post something incendiary on social media about your former employer? Have you daydreamed of walking out of the office for a lunch break never to return? Did the movie Office Space strike a chord with you?

We’ve all been there. You’re so frustrated that you’re tempted to burn a bridge.

I’ve witnessed the destruction of many-a-bridge in my career, and they all have the same unhappy ending. Once the smoke clears, that’s one overpass you can never cross again.

Now, for Peter Gibbons in Office Space, it all ended well. But it may not for the rest of us. So, here are some of the most common bridge-burning techniques we’re seen and why you should avoid them like 37 pieces of flair.

“Ghosting” a Potential Employer

A couple of years ago we helped a candidate land an amazing director-level job. The candidate seemed excited and the employer was thrilled. But as the start date neared, communication from the newly hired director trailed off. Calls, emails, and online messages weren’t returned. We started to worry that something terrible had happened. I remember combing local accident reports and news stories fearing the worst. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks: the candidate wasn’t being held against her will in some remote locale; we had been “ghosted” (to borrow dating terminology).

What never made sense to me is why the candidate didn’t simply pick up the phone (or write an email) and explain she no longer wanted the job. Things change; these things happen. Despite the pain of rejection, the client would have surely understood. And if the candidate handled the situation correctly, there is a good chance we would have left the door open for future possibilities. Instead, she burned the bridge.

The lesson here is to have the decency and maturity to tell an employer that you are no longer interested in pursuing a job — whether it’s before or after an offer has been made. If you go radio silent, I pinky swear that your future options with the organization will be nil.

Quitting a Job without Ample Notice

Employers feel the sting of rejection when they lose an employee, but they typically get over it with time — unless the departing employee ends things unprofessionally or leaves them in a lurch.

A client recently told me about an employee who just stopped showing up for work. No call. No email. No note. What? I’m having a flashback to how I broke up with my boyfriend in fifth grade. (Sorry, Rusty. I was young and foolish.)

This immature and short-sighted behavior will no doubt come back to haunt this gentleman. What happens when a future employer asks for a reference from the organization? Another bridge incinerated.

The moral of the story is to give ample notice before leaving a job. It’s the respectful thing to do. Two weeks is standard courtesy, but if you’ve been on the job for several years, more notice will may help you maintain a healthy relationship with your soon-to-be-former employer.

Unloading on Social Media

Years ago I was working on a search and thought we had found the perfect candidate. The client was just about to draft an offer letter when he decided to sniff around on the candidate’s social media sites. Lo and behold he found a post in which the person had trash-talked a former employer. Then, faster than you can say, “short-term thinking can cost you a job,” the client moved on to another candidate.

Not only had the candidate burned the bridge with her former employer, but she had inadvertently let the fire spread to other bridges — many of which she may never know were burned.

The take-away here is to always be professional on social media sites when it comes to former employers. Just remember mama’s advice: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

Telling off a Boss

We’ve all had that boss. My first job out of college involved working for an unethical, dishonest, unresponsive, unprofessional jerk (to put it nicely). It took me all of three months to figure it out and then I knew I had to get out of there. I had all sorts of grand machinations to tell him off in dramatic fashion, but ultimately decided to be professional — as much as that pained me. It was the right move not only for my career, but also for my conscience.

The key point here is to not let your emotions in the heat of the moment get the best of you. If you have irreconcilable differences with your supervisor, you should look for another job. And when you leave, there’s no need to tell the bossman how you really feel. Just put in your notice and move along.


So, the next time you’re tempted to pull a Peter Gibbons and not show up for work or emulate Joanna and let flair get the best of you, remember the power of long-term thinking. It’s a small free-market universe; the things you say and do today will work for (or against) you in the years to come.