Let’s End Two Weeks’ Notice
Why are employees made to feel like they have to give notice when leaving a job—but employers don’t owe that same consideration to workers?
Hi folks! I’m almost done with my first semester of grad school—which is very exciting, but also means I’m in finals hell right now. Traditionally, I take the month of December off and republish some of the best interviews of the year, but I’m not sure if that’s the right move this year since I’ve been so sporadic with posting.
Drop me a message about what you’d like to see for the month of December!
Here’s a wild idea: The next time you quit your job, don’t give two weeks’ notice.
When I worked at a coffee shop in San Francisco, I knew one of my colleagues was looking for another job. He didn’t tell anyone else. When he finally did get hired, he gave only four days’ notice. It was a Monday, and his last day would be Thursday. He gave a hard out, and there was no room for negotiation.
I was surprised—I’d been socialized to think that employees had to give two weeks’ notice when they quit their jobs—but also impressed. The more I thought about it, the more unfair that expectation seemed. After all, employers can fire you at the drop of a hat. You can walk into a job you’ve had for years and leave unemployed; no notice, no severance, nothing. Why should employees give advance notice if they plan to leave when employers still have the power to let go of people with reckless abandon?
As far as I can tell, a two-week notice period is simply a custom established over time, but one so ingrained that “many people believe that doing so is legally required,” the legal site nolo.com reports. “It’s not. No state or federal law requires you to notify your boss two weeks before leaving your job. If you’re an at-will employee, you can leave at any time, and provide as much or as little notice as you’d like.”
I’m more interested in how and why the idea became customary. Even as I typed the first sentence of this piece, I bristled: It felt subversive, like I was doing something wrong in encouraging people to leave their jobs without giving full notice. I imagined readers responding to that statement with comments like, “No way—that’s such bad form. I’d never do that to my employer/colleagues/clients.” But I believe it’s worth questioning this practice—especially in service jobs, where pay is often so low and power so imbalanced.
Why should we feel responsible for helping our employers transition new employees into the roles we’re departing—but expect none of that grace returned to us?
If you’re an international reader, you’re probably scratching your head at the premise of this article. Employers can fire you whenever they want? Are there no protections for employees?
The short answer: no. Every state in the U.S., save Montana, is at-will. Barring limited protections and provisions—generally against identity-based discrimination, though some states also protect employees from being fired without notice if, for example, they have an “implied” contract (like a handbook that says employees are only let go under certain circumstances)—employers can fire their employees for any reason.
From what I can tell, most other countries operate under a “just cause” understanding of employment, meaning an employer can fire you only if they have a good reason. And it makes sense that protections would extend to employees, not employers (however “protective” you define “just cause,” it’s undoubtedly more so than at-will employment). The consequences of your company having to work without you might be annoying and inconvenient—but the consequences of you not having a job are far more substantial.
In a country where 60% of people live paycheck to paycheck, getting fired from your job suddenly can plunge you into financial turmoil. Just missing two weeks of work—the traditional paycheck period for many workers—can result in dire consequences.
There’s already inequality latent in the expectation that employees give notice while employers don’t have to. And employers benefit from additional legal protections. They have recourse to prosecute employees if they steal from work, for instance. In Iowa, a woman was charged with a class C felony for stealing more than $10,000 from her employer, CVS. She pleaded guilty, so she’s not going to jail, but she could have received a sentence of up to 10 years.
But if your employer steals wages from you, good luck trying to get them back. In 2014, The Economic Policy Institute reported that wage theft—where employers keep rightfully earned wages due to things like minimum wage and overtime violations, or employee misclassification—could cost workers up to $50 billion a year. Imagine what that number looks like now, nearly ten years later.
Let’s go back to the example of CVS. The former employee who stole from the business was charged with a criminal offense, but the pharmacy chain has been accused—multiple times—of withholding wages from workers. Good Jobs First, a tracker aggregating company violations, says CVS has paid out over $100 million in wage and hourly pay violations. It was surprisingly hard to find information about these violations, but it looks like what we know about them comes from class-action lawsuits. In one lawsuit, where pharmacists were required to complete training programs off the clock, CVS was ordered to pay $10.4 million, and it’s unclear if any of that money constitutes fines for violating the law. Indeed, there are no criminal findings. No one is going to jail for this.
This unequal application of power and punishment is baked into the American justice system. A 20-year-old Amazon worker died on the job—and the company was fined just $7,000. An investigation from ProPublica found that many deaths on Wisconsin farms (nearly all of the deceased individuals were people of color) never got investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. More Perfect Union reported that McDonald’s was found to be in violation of federal law “by making 14 and 15-year-olds work during school hours, more than 8 hours a day, before 7 a.m. and after 9 p.m.” It was fined $26,000.
We’ve accepted punitive measures against individual workers as fair, but we have no system for punishing companies beyond paltry fines. All of this speaks to how we understand our rights in the workplace—and what we think we owe our employers.
Guilt-Tripping and Quitting
I still feel some anxiety about the possibility of quitting without notice, and to be clear, I’m not recommending it as a blanket policy. I just don’t think people should feel bad quitting a job with very little notice. I also think people have the right to make strategic decisions: I’ve seen workers denied their promised bonuses and pay when they quit, even if they gave ample notice. I’ve heard folks try to give their two weeks’ notice, only to be terminated immediately, the courtesy we’ve all been conditioned to extend to an employer suddenly thrown back in their face.
I think for many of us, the biggest reservation we have about quitting suddenly is saddling others with our responsibilities. If you leave with little or no notice, someone you work with—maybe someone you like or care about—may be stuck picking up the slack.
But that’s pointing the finger in the wrong direction. Businesses and companies already get away with so much, and employees are often manipulated to stay longer by feeling indebted to their colleagues. Of course, that feeling doesn’t go away with some intellectualizing and sober reminders that the people in power are to blame.
But I do want to directly confront why we might feel icky about quitting a job without notice. For me, it comes back to how systems are designed to protect influential organizations but do little to protect actual people. That’s why it feels like someone is putting a thumb on the scale when you’re trying to assert your rights—like collecting back wages—but companies that commit even the most egregious crimes get little more than a slap on the wrist. A $26,000 fine is less than pocket change for a corporation like McDonald’s. A $7,000 fine for Amazon is a disgusting affront to the worker who lost their life.
These systems continue to inform how we view work on a broad level—like how Starbucks repeatedly breaks the law in its dealings with union workers, but legally cannot be fined for violating the law—but also on a personal one. So next time you plan to leave a job, consider doing what my former colleague did: Give four, three, no days’ notice. And don’t feel bad for doing what an employer would do to you without thinking twice.