Work Breakups: When To Quit Your Job or Fire Your Client

You know those relationships that once they end, you look back and the breakup feels like it was an inevitability? You really wanted it to work, so you tried to ignore the hints that this person wasn't who you wanted them to be. As I was sharing apprehensions about someone I was dating, a friend once told me he didn’t see any red flags, but there were a lot of orange ones. Maybe I'd stuck it out for longer than I had intended to because I'd already put so much energy into it.

I’ve had clients like that, too. It’s work I’m really excited about, so I overlook the long delays between emails and frustrating miscommunications scoping the project. Then getting the contract signed is excruciating, and usually, I’m not set up for success once I’m in the role. I’m forced to choose between being disappointed with my deliverable or going far out of the scope of work to get the project done to my standards.

I’ve watched clients and friends face similar struggles as they consider leaving jobs that are unfulfilling or dysfunctional. Here are three of my favorite strategies for preventing these work breakups and navigating the splits when they’re your best option.

1. Get Really Clear About Expectations

In the same way you’d want to know if your new lover is looking for a monogamous life partner vs. the “fun for now" type, you want to ensure that everyone has the same expectations of roles and responsibilities before you sign a contract.

If you’re coming into a new position, make sure the job or project description and reporting structure are clearly defined. You want to know what you’re responsible for and to whom you’re responsible before signing. This applies to any role, from short-term consulting to a full-time job.

Get clear on what your expectations are of your clients. Personally, I’m considering adding a shared agreements section to my proposals that outlines my client’s responsibilities in achieving the deliverable (i.e. timely communication, access to the necessary files and personnel, payment timeline, etc.).

If you’re in the midst of a contract or job already and want to try to salvage the relationship, ask for a check-in. Once you’re face-to-face, you can ask questions about how your employer or client is feeling about the project and what strategies they think would improve the process moving forward. Starting by listening and asking questions allows you to see if there are miscommunications and at the same time show you’re invested in the process.

2. Hit Reset With A Vacation

A client (who was in a job search) told me her vacation felt like the "let's take a break" phase of the relationship she was in with her current employer. According to her, it took the vacation to realize, “Oh sh*t. I really just need to break it off, because I’m much happier without them.” As she looked for new positions while in her current role, she told me, “I'm now in the 'faking it' phase."

Sometimes a vacation is what you need to get grounded in your priorities. You just might realize that work isn’t the toxic relationship in your life, maybe it’s a partner or a friend. Perhaps you’re burned out and it’s a matter of recalibrating your workload with the support of your supervisor. Or maybe this gig just isn’t the right fit. If that’s the case, proceed to strategy

3. Rip Off The Band-Aid

In my experience with dating and with contracts, letting the situation linger when a breakup is inevitable is a perfect recipe for frustration on both sides.

By the time you’ve waited until your point of maximum frustration, often your work product and relationship with your current employer or client are suffering. When people are very dissatisfied or burned out in their current role, they often have a harder time staying positive in the job search, which in turn makes the job search more difficult. There are some roles (and relationships) that just aren’t a good fit.

Maybe you’re plagued by indecision, and singing along to the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” feels like the best approximation of your feelings on the subject.

Do the self-reflection to decide if it’s time to move onto something else. These decisions can be hard, so remember, it’s ok to be sad, scared, conflicted or to experience any other emotion that might come up. Be present with your feelings. If you’re ready to go, analyze your alternatives, and try to move forward quickly and strategically.

Whatever you decide, know that there are plenty of other jobs, contracts, and clients in the sea.

A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.