Should I Stay or Should I Go? Leaving a Government Job


Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go, there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The Clash brought this rock anthem to us in 1982. For feds, it is a question that crops up on a regular basis, whether it’s threatened budget cuts, changes to retirement rules, department crises or when an employee senses an irreconcilable difference between her job and her values.

Lifelong careers with a single organization are becoming as rare as rotary phones. That means that from time to time, it may actually be a good thing to be asking yourself whether it’s time to leave. Depending on what brought this thinking to the surface at a particular moment, it makes sense to ask yourself the following questions:

Bad day, bored or burnt out?

Life at work will always have its ups and downs. The organization may be experiencing a busy period when the demands on you are on the rise, the boss’s patience drops and co-workers’ tempers flare. If this is identifiable as time-limited, such as a project, a period of change in your organization or a crisis, ask yourself if you are likely to feel this way in a month or when this period passes.

Maybe it’s the opposite problem. There is no discernible pace to pick up. The days seem the same or you haven’t been challenged in a long time. It may be that you don’t have to leave, but you’ll definitely want to explore opportunities within your organization that allow you to use your skills and develop new ones. What about burnout? If what you see around you leads to you back to “been there, done that,” it may be time to get out of that particular cul-de-sac.

Another set of questions would start with “Am I growing here?” Do you feel that you have been given progressively greater levels of responsibility, autonomy and/or resources during your tenure? Have those opportunities challenged you and helped you develop new skills? Are your contributions acknowledged and rewarded by your organization’s leadership? Finally, do you think you will continue to grow in this organization? The answers to these questions will be a good barometer of whether or not a career move is in the air.

If you are long-tenured in a job, it may be time to take stock of what has happened around you while you have been at work. Is this the same place you joined as a new-hire? Have the mission, people and/or priorities changed? Does the place feel different to you?  It may be that the place has changed for the better. Then you can ask how these changes have made you feel and whether you are comfortable where you are now.

And then there are the harder cases. As a federal worker, you have a duty to report wrongdoing that violates laws or agency regulations. Less clear cut may be cases where no laws are broken but the operating culture becomes toxic – managers withhold information or play favorites, decisions are not explained or not made at all and staff concerns go unaddressed.

While every department or agency is different, the strategy for employees in dealing with a toxic environment often falls into four levels of action: report, document, influence and exit. Reporting means not suffering in silence but bringing your concerns to the appropriate person. Once you’ve made the case, you can document your experience in the form of a note to the file. Should the situation be examined at a later date, if you are consulted, you will benefit from having your experience and insights on the record. Influencing means looking for allies within your organization who may agree with your concerns and are willing to take action, recruit others or offer alternative strategies.

The last – and potentially most painful option – is exit. Can you afford to make a change right now? How will leaving this job affect me and my family? It may be possible to find a new job before you leave the one you’re in. Most employers will seek permission from you to contact your current employer. If they ask why you are leaving, you can answer honestly and decide how much you choose to reveal. It may be enough to say you needed a change.

At this point, one tried and true strategy starts with a yellow pad. Make two columns listing the “Pros” in the first column and the “Cons” in the second. After going through the mental exercise of listing the arguments for and against a move, it’s now time for the gut-check. Which decision “feels” right?

Choosing to exit undoubtedly involves costs – financial, emotional and vocational. The question to ask is compared to what?

I come back to The Clash: “If I go, there could be trouble. And if I stay it will be double.” When a workplace becomes so toxic and you have done what is within your power to address it, the costs of leaving just might be outweighed by the benefits of finding a positive environment where you can thrive once more.


Neil A. Levine is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Stacie M. Rivera

Neil, I enjoyed this post, and in fact, am living it – it’s a ‘tough place to be in for sure. Another option is to find an alternative outlet such as learning a new skill, setting the foundation for your ‘next act’ or finding a side gig that gives you purpose. Love to hear other thoughts @PierceRivera

Neil Levine

Stacie: Thanks for the comment. I totally agree and have in my mind a companion piece to this one about “getting ready for your next move.” It will be on how you train yourself to do career development on an ongoing basis and keep yourself from falling into a rut.