How to graciously break a work contract in twenty million easy steps
March 14, 2013 8:26 PM   Subscribe

My boss wants to renew my work contract for a year. I really like my boss, and my workplace. But. I've been admitted into a prestigious graduate program for the fall, and I know I want to go. Please help me navigate workplace etiquette.

I started working at this place last year, on a contract. My contract is up, and they want to renew for a year rather than take me on full-time. This is easily the best job I've ever had. Coworkers are all kind, hardworking people. The job uses my skills in a way I actually enjoy, gives me a lot of responsibility and room for creativity, and fair pay.

But. It's a job I sort of fell into out of necessity, and it's not what I want to do with my life. I want to be a professor.

So I have the chance to realize my dream...have been admitted to my top choice school. I can't turn this down. But I also:
a) Want to continue to work in my job until I leave and
b) Don't want to burn bridges here, for the abovementioned reasons.

Many people have suggested signing the contract and simply giving notice two weeks or a month before I leave. I respect my boss and my workplace a great deal, however, and don't want to let them down. I worry that signing a contract for a specified period of time knowing full well I won't fulfill even half of it is ethically wrong. Especially considering how understanding they've been of me and my need to take time off to pursue the interests that ended up getting me into grad school.

My boss wants to get this squared away by the end of the week. What should I do? Is it OK for me to sign this contract and give notice in a few months?

Ethicists of MeFi, please help! And thank you for your always wonderful advice.
posted by Bluestocking_Puppet to Work & Money (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I worry that signing a contract for a specified period of time knowing full well I won't fulfill even half of it is ethically wrong.

Read the contract. Does it give you the ability to leave giving notice? Then it's all on the table, the other party knows this, and it's not at all ethically wrong.

Just sign it.
posted by pompomtom at 8:28 PM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

Alternately, you can tell them about grad school, in much the same language you've already used. Would they be open to a 3-4 month contract? This would be plenty of them for them to keep you on so they can find your replacement. And it would meet both of your needs.
posted by Mercaptan at 8:36 PM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

He knows you've been persuing grad school... I don't see why you can't just be up front with him and say you were just accepted but would like to keep working there until you start, and sign a 6 month contract.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:36 PM on March 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would have a hard time with you signing a contract that you never intend to fulfill. However, I would very much appreciate it if you came to me and discussed it. Talk to your boss about the best way to handle it. He may tell you to sign the contract assuming there is a notice period or he may adjust the contract. Although it is a possibility, I would be very surprised if they said never mind and ended the relationship now.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:39 PM on March 14, 2013

Just to clarify: they don't know I've applied for grad school. I was given time off to pursue what they perceive to be a hobby...which is actually what I'll be studying in grad school.
posted by Bluestocking_Puppet at 8:40 PM on March 14, 2013

The contract isn't an agreement to work for them for a year--it's an agreement about the terms of your employment for up to a year. You can sign and walk away with a clear conscience when the time comes. After all, that's five months in which it's conceivable your life circumstances will change (or the department you're joining will fall apart or you'll find out the person you want to study with is awful--who knows?), and you'll decide to stick around.

That said, if you could afford not being rehired, you might enjoy not keeping quiet about your plans at some point in the near future, e.g. if you'd like the freedom to talk to co-workers about what's up. It sounds like you're in a good place where you're appreciated, so I bet they'd rehire you anyway, but of course who knows.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:51 PM on March 14, 2013

I am normally not in favor of worrying too much about the pwecious feewings of corporations, but signing a one-year contract and then leaving under circumstances where it's blisteringly obvious you've known about it for a long time is likely to generate some deserved ill-will. I'd just talk to your boss and basically lay out those three points above. Fall is far enough away that it might very well make sense to keep you on a while as they plan for a longer-term replacement.

The only caveat to that is that if you know (or can find out) that your workplace is institutionally psycho about people leaving - has a policy of showing people the door the instant they start to discuss it, for example - then just give notice two weeks or whatever out. I've worked at some places like that, and it's stupid but it happens. (It's stupid because it's not, like, a secret, and it just means that people lie more and the company loses weeks or months of potential work, with no notice.)
posted by restless_nomad at 8:52 PM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

Negotiate a shorter contract.
posted by heyjude at 8:57 PM on March 14, 2013 [5 favorites]

why dont you just tell your boss whats up?
posted by facetious at 9:13 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

If they really want you, you'll have no problem just telling your boss that you need the contract to be for 6 months, rather than a year, because you're going to graduate school then.

This should be no problem at all for them.
posted by yellowcandy at 9:15 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

You can sign the contract, and give notice at the end of summer, without them needing to know that you are going off to grad school. Just give plenty of notice, and say you are leaving to pursue other opportunities. It's exactly none of their business what those opportunities are.

It's just business. You're replaceable. Give them a reasonable amount of time to find a replacement; be gracious and professional in your final weeks; and don't give it another thought.
posted by nacho fries at 9:43 PM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm not getting why this is an issue. Tell them you're going to grad school in however many months and that you'd like to continue working there until then. They may wonder why you're pursuing a graduate degree in your supposed hobby but you can tell them that you're actually very interested in pursuing an advanced degree in underwater basketweaving. Be willing to train the next the person should they decide to bring someone on to replace you when the time comes.
posted by shoesietart at 9:45 PM on March 14, 2013 [5 favorites]

Do NOT sign a one year contract if you intend to quit in a few months. If your employer finds out you quit because you are going to grad school, it will not take much for them to figureout when you were accepted, and to realize that you knowingly signed a one year agreement with the intention of quitting in just a few months. To say this would burn some bridges is putting it mildly. If one of my employees did this to me, I guarantee they would never be offered another contract, and would never be given a positive reference. Ever.

If you really do like and respect your boss, as you claim, then give him the courtesy of being up front with him. To do otherwise will only result in negative consequences.
posted by Guernsey Halleck at 2:09 AM on March 15, 2013

It sounds like you have a good relationship with your boss, so I vote for being up front: I've been accepted to grad school in the fall, but I would really like to stay working here until then--are you open to a shorter contract?

That allows them to keep you for a while and gives them time to recruit and train a good replacement. It also allows you to keep the door open if, for some reason, you decide the academic life is not your thing and need to look for another job.
posted by rpfields at 2:33 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

A yearly "contract" offered by a company isn't binding like a contract for a music deal, or book or something. Basically, the company isn't taking you on as an employee, thus they are providing less and getting more from you because they don't provide contracted employees benefits and they can get rid of them any time they want, no reason necessary. This contract helps them not you, so I would take Geurnsey Halleck's adivice with a grain of salt. If corporations valued employees and the positions they fill, they would offer them a position in the company rather than a temporary "contract". Any employer who got in a hissy, threatened to not provide an earned positive reference, because a "contracted" employee knowingly signing and then leaving after a few months is really just beyond the pale inappropriate. That being said, I understand you want to do the right thing and be an honest human being in this and all areas of your life, you should just be honest and tell them what's up. I'm sure your boss will understand and if they are as nice as you say, will be very happy for you. They can then hire your replacement while you are still there and you can train them.
posted by waving at 3:08 AM on March 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

The contract isn't an agreement to work for them for a year--it's an agreement about the terms of your employment for up to a year.

Yes, exactly. A contract is an agreement. Included in that agreement is how to break it. The one year thing is simply how long the terms of the agreement are in force. They are promising you a job for a year as long as you show up.

Like your cell phone contract. You agree to pay them for service for two years. If you decide not to, you give them $175 and you're out. The other side can be disappointed, but not mad: you did what was agreed to. You fulfilled your bargain.

So read the contract before you sign it and find the area about early termination. It probably says something like "the undersigned agrees to give X weeks notice prior to ending the contract." If those terms are acceptable to you and you intend to fulfill them, then proceed.

You can't sign a contract to enslave yourself. There is always going to be a legal and acceptable out for both sides. It may not be painless, but if you fulfill the agreement you signed, you are morally and ethically in the clear.
posted by gjc at 3:41 AM on March 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

If the business experiences a significant downturn and they have to cut costs drastically, do you really expect them to keep you around for 12 months just because of the piece of paper? Contractors are often the first to get let go in that situation.

Sign the contract, say nothing now, give them 8 weeks notice this summer.
posted by COD at 5:34 AM on March 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

gjc: So read the contract before you sign it and find the area about early termination. It probably says something like "the undersigned agrees to give X weeks notice prior to ending the contract." If those terms are acceptable to you and you intend to fulfill them, then proceed.

This is exactly right.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:07 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm with those who say to sign, and then give notice when you're ready to.

Yes, everyone is great, but let's face it, it's a company, and they make their hiring decisions based upon their best interests, so you should make your employment decisions in your best interest.

The contract merely says that they will fund the position for 12 months. It doesn't guarantee you a job for 12 months (read it, I'm sure it doesn't) or that you agree that you'll stay for 12 months.

If I were on a contract job, and 6 months into a 12 month contract, I was offered a full-time position elsewhere, I wouldn't think twice about taking the new job.

I say, give 4 weeks notice and agree to train whomever will be your replacement.

posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:27 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is not legal advice. A contract to provide services for a set period of time is a contract to provide services for that period of time. If it also provides for a means of termination by giving notice, fine. Use that provision.

However, understand that while you are unlikely to be forced to provide the services, you would very possibly be liable for damages caused by your failure to do so, e.g. costs of hiring a replacement, other reasonable costs incurred by the other party in obtaining substitute services. Whether they would pursue these remedies is a separate question, which we cannot answer.

That said, discussion and prior agreement about your plans is the way to resolve this. Do it before you sign the proposed contract.
posted by uncaken at 7:30 AM on March 15, 2013

You didn't say where you live, which is why I think you are getting the two opposing suggestions. In some places, a one-year contract is a binding document where both you and the employer make firm commitments to each other for the entire time period, with penalties on either side if one of you should break it. In other places, the contract is merely a document to formalize the payment expectations for that time period, so long as you both agree that you will work there, and either party has the right to terminate the contract at any time with no penalties. We don't know which type of contract you are being asked to sign.

In either case, the details of what you want to do should be spelled out in the contract. Look for the language that talks about termination and see what it says. If there are penalties, then you should negotiate the contract for only the timeframe that you think you will be available, and ask for some language to allow re-initiation of a new contract just in case your plans fall through. If there are no penalties, then use your best judgment, and play some what-if games: What if your grad school plans fall through? What if your mother gets sick and you have to cancel grad school but you still need to work to support her? What if you tell your boss that you are leaving, and they start downgrading all your work and give you shitty projects because you're leaving soon anyway? etc.

We don't know the type of boss you have either - if you have the vindictive, petty type, then don't say anything and just give 2 weeks notice. If you have the type who is genuinely concerned for the best interests of his employees and wants to help each of you make your way up in the world, then maybe tell. It's also true that YOU might not know the type of boss you have, even if you think you know.
posted by CathyG at 9:11 AM on March 15, 2013

Looks like a split vote.

You should be up front with your boss. This doesn't sound so scary to me, but even if it is daunting I think you'll be much happier if you do it. Do you really want to go the next six months feeling like a deceiver?

To me, the letter of the contract is not the issue. I would recommend making your plans clear in any case. You like these people and they like you, you should help them plan for your departure. If you worked for jerks, it would be a different story.
posted by mattu at 3:15 PM on March 15, 2013

Thank you, all, for the excellent (and sometimes opposing) advice. Luckily, this is a contract with a 2 weeks notice clause, so no worries there. It's also true that grad school plans could fall through. I would like to be up front with them, but have not formally accepted the grad offer, either. So, a weekend to think things through and make some decisions.
posted by Bluestocking_Puppet at 4:33 PM on March 15, 2013

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