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Bailing out: When your tech job compromises your integrity

A recent tweet sparked some controversy when it stated that switching jobs every 12–18 months is a big red flag on a job candidate’s resume. There is nothing new or particularly insightful about this claim. In fact, it’s been part of the canon of recruitment wisdom for a long time. But that doesn’t mean that it’s applicable in all circumstances or industries, or that it doesn’t contribute to the unfair exclusion of some groups, or even that it’s relevant today.

This tweet has inspired some women in tech to share their stories about the jobs that they left, and the jobs that they stayed in despite enduring abuse and being miserable. These stories demonstrate that sometimes when we leave a place of employment after a short stint, we do it to protect our psychological health and remove ourselves from a harmful environment.

I pondered whether to jump into the discussion and share the story of the workplace that tried to grind me into a fine paste, but I didn’t feel I could do it justice in 280 character bursts.

Are you working for good or evil?

I’ve been reading Virginia Eubanks’ book Automating Inequality, which talks about the ways technology and automation are used to suppress society’s most needy and marginalised people. Eubanks’ compelling take on the ethics of technology drew me in and made me think about my own work and its applications. And then today, I woke up to a story about Google employees who are quitting because of ethical concerns over their work.

Sometimes it seems like unseen forces are conspiring to will you to tell a story. And it seemed the moment was right to talk about how, in the course of a technical career, we often have cause to examine whether our work is being used for good or evil. And my story is one where ethical concerns over the nature of the work were a major contributor to my decision to leave.

The story begins

At a certain point in my career, I worked for an employer that made me feel ethically compromised. At the best of times, I believed the way were being directed to work didn’t enable us to provide a good service. At the worst of times, I believed we were directly putting our customers in extreme hardship and putting their safety at risk.

I fought every day, to get adequate training for my team, to change our metrics for success, and to put safeguards in place to protect us and our customers. I worked overtime on nights and weekends, sometimes spending hours to get the right outcome for just one customer, because we had messed up so badly for them.

At times I directed my teammates to stop work while I took the fight to some of the most senior people in our organisation. It was exhausting, but it felt important to me. I had to do what I felt was right. For a time, I made a conscious choice to believe that things could change.

At the same time, I was trying to get a promotion. You may think me naïve for expecting to be recognised when I was making so much trouble, but I still believe the leadership qualities I demonstrated during that time were incredibly strong. All I wanted was for my team to deliver quality results, and I showed personal courage and challenged issues constructively, which was exactly the kind of behaviour my employer would have said they encouraged.

I was in an environment in which I could not succeed. My passion for getting things right, which should have been an asset, was precisely the thing holding me back. Even amidst all this, there were people who supported me. People who believed in everything I was trying to achieve, and who went to bat for me. But they were as powerless as I was. Change was not going to happen, because senior leaders didn’t see reducing harm as part of our mission.

Bailing out

Over time, working in that environment wore me down. After dozens of tearful conversations with colleagues, a few counselling sessions with the Employee Assistance Program and a few days of stress leave, I knew there was only one thing I could do. I started making a plan to resign.

I was lucky that I recognised the need to resign before I became completely disengaged. I still had enough drive to explore other opportunities and I worked hard to prepare myself for interviews. I was able to see the opportunities that were available to me, and I was diligent enough to pursue them. Like a good engineer, I engineered my way out.

Work that compromises your values leaves a mark. When you refuse to do as you are told because you can see how it harms others, you can rest assured that you’re making the right choice.

Recruiters, maybe you need a new canon? Some of us quitters have stories to tell.