Knowing When It’s Time to Quit

Even in this strong labor market, leaving a job is a tough call. Some of the issues to consider. 


In 2019, the average turnover rate in the US was 36.4%. By 2021, that number had jumped to 57.3%. In a Korn Ferry survey, a majority of employers said they anticipate the rate will just keep increasing this year. We’re talking, of course, about the Great Resignation.

But resigning from a job remains one of the toughest career calls of all—even if it seems as if everyone is doing it. What happens to someone who leaves a situation and finds that the grass isn’t greener on the other side? Should they quit right away and try to get their old job back? Should they look for another one? Or should they give the new gig more time, and risk going even further down the wrong path?

People tend to focus on sunk costs, but experts recommend thinking about the opportunity cost of sticking with an unsatisfactory job or project. “Every minute, dollar, and thought we spend wishing for an outcome in something that’s not working out is a minute, dollar, and thought we can’t spend on something of potentially greater value,” says Sean Carney, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance.

Here’s how to know when to bail out, and how to recover.

Try to be as rational as possible.

“There’s never a great time to let go of something you had high hopes for,” Carney says. A tough decision like this can pull your emotions in several directions. Instead of being guided by guilt, regret, or self-judgment, use data points—as many as possible—to help you decide when to quit. It can be helpful to speak with a career coach or trusted advisor to gain clarity.

Tie up loose ends.

In many cases, you won’t be the only one affected by a much-hyped project going south—especially if you’ve started a business. If the data is telling you that you need to close up shop, don’t just cut and run. Sit down with the team and do a retrospective: look for learning opportunities, give recognition to those who took risks, and be completely transparent about the next steps. “Keeping up appearances is the wrong move, and ultimately worse for morale,” Carney says.

Reflect on why it didn’t work, and pivot.

When we experience a failure of any kind, it’s important to reflect on what went well and what we would do differently next time. But it’s not healthy to dwell on what went wrong. Remember the concept of opportunity cost: time spent looking backward is essentially more time spent on the failed project. To maintain the energy and momentum of pursuing a goal you care about, experts suggest taking what you’ve learned and moving forward as quickly as possible.

Redefine failure.

A failure is only a failure when we fail to learn from it. “Failure is actually a leading indicator that you’re challenging yourself enough, innovating enough, and trying enough new things,” Carney says.

It’s hard when a project, goal, or new job doesn’t go as planned, but the best way to honor your effort is to give yourself credit for taking the risk—something most people won’t do. So keep challenging yourself. Identify the lessons from the experience and apply them in your next pursuit.