Are You Legally Required To Give Two-Weeks Notice?

Illustration by Abbie Winters.
You did it. You went out and found (and landed) a new job. Congrats! It probably wasn't easy and you should feel relieved and proud — but there's one more big thing you have to do before you celebrate: quit.
In some ways, giving notice is scarier than interviewing. You might imagine going out in a blaze of glory — telling off your jerk boss, or pulling a Devil Wear's Prada and simply walk out. But not so fast. This isn't the time to burn bridges.
But if this is the first time you've left a job, you might not be familiar with the niceties of quitting. Ahead, we'll walk you through the right way to quit. Including answering that age-old question: Are you legally required to give two-weeks notice?
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Giving an employer two weeks notice when you leave is such a conventional practice that you might assume doing so is mandated by law. However, your 14-day warning is technically more of a courtesy and less of a legal obligation — at least in most cases.

The vast majority of employment in the United States happens on an "at-will" basis, which means an employer can fire a worker at any time, without giving specific cause (as long as the reason is not illegal and/or discriminatory). Although that's not always the greatest situation, the flip side of working at will is that employees can do the same and quit their jobs any time they choose, without giving cause. There are no federal or state laws that requires giving two-weeks notice.

However, where things can get tricky depends on your specific situation, and your specific contract. Yes — all that paperwork you didn't really read through once you agreed on your pay and benefits when accepting a new job.

"I'd estimate that 10% or 20% of at-will employees have some form of an employment agreement that places restrictions on the at-will relationship," says James M. Paul, co-chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) Subcommittee on the Family and Medical Leave Act, and a shareholder with the Ogletree Deakins law firm. "These are promises made on both sides, involving things like how much notice either side should give, what happens in a transition, and if the person will train their replacement or at least spend however many days or weeks easing the successor into that role."

These agreements can be particularly restrictive in highly competitive industries, or with employees with specialized skills closer to the executive level. For example, it's easier to find new employees for roles in the service industry rather than jobs that require very technical — and propriety — skills. In those cases, Paul says agreements might restrict the timeframe in which an employee can work for a competitor, or ask that both sides give 30 days notice before termination under the penalty.

In any case, Paul says the legal enforceability of employee agreements depends on the actual agreement. Giving your boss a reasonable amount of time to find a replacement is highly advisable (you don't want a black cloud to hover over you in the industry you love), but not doing so isn't against the law — even if your most disgruntled manager vows to sue.

"It would not be possible to enforce actual forced servitude for two weeks or whatever the notice period is. However, an employer could sue for damages," Paul says, pointing to money they lost as a result of your sudden departure (including loss of clients/sales, extra cost of hiring someone ASAP and training them, cost of engaging a headhunter or staffing agency while scrambling to hire someone immediately).

In short, read what you sign before you start a job to make sure you aren't making any promises that you don't want to keep down the line.
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Your direct supervisor, your direct boss, your direct anything.

Sure, your "work wife/spouse" might be the person you talk to most, but no matter how much you might want to share your good news with them first, doing so could come across as beyond rude to the person who manages you day-to-day. (Not to mention, in some cases, gossip about vacancies can get the rumor mill going in a way that's unintentionally disruptive.)

"Always go directly to the person you report to, and if you're in a matrix organization or you have a dual reporting responsibility, try to get all the affected parties in a room at the same time," advises Dan Ryan, the principal at Ryan Search & Consulting. "If they're not available, then go to HR." Absolutely don't let your manager find out you're leaving through the grapevine.
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There's a way to say "I'm leaving," that feels firm, respectful, and even kind, and there's another way to say "I'm leaving" that sounds like "$*#! you!" No matter how tempting it is to reduce even the most terrible boss to ashes in your wake, you want to do your best to be considerate on your way out.

The protocol for giving notice can differ greatly from job to job but, generally, most places will require a face-to-face heads up followed by a concise, formalized letter for the company's records. Keep both forms of conversation as professional as possible and start off by telling your direct supervisor in person.

"I recommend that an employee provide a verbal resignation to the immediate supervisor followed by a written notice of resignation," says Jeremy T. Tolley, the Chief People Officer at CareHere. "As a manager, it is disconcerting to be surprised by a resignation notice via email. Talking to your boss before the letter is sent shows professionalism and respect." If you have a fraught relationship with your manager, he suggests consulting with your HR department on a plan of action.

Once you have the face-to-face conversation, you can keep the formal written letter of resignation concise. Kelly Marinelli, a principal consultant at Solve HR, advises starting your letter by thanking your boss for giving you the opportunity to work with the team, including a more personalized word of appreciation about something positive if you can (education, training, mentoring, or development you received while at the company), and then explicitly indicating that you are giving notice, specifying the date of your last day with the company, before ending with best wishes for future success.. "It doesn’t matter how difficult it’s been at the job you’re leaving," she says, "odds are that you have learned some important skills and lessons during your time there."

Finally, if you've had a great experience at the place you're leaving but the time has simply come to go, feel free to be a bit warmer in your goodbye. Joyce Van Curen, a member of the HR Disciplines Panel at SHRM, suggests something along the lines of the following:

Dear, Kim:

It is with mixed feelings that I must inform you of my intent to resign from my position effective June 30, 2017. On the one hand, I am very excited about the opportunity that has opened up for me in that it will allow me to achieve the next step in my career plan. On the other hand, it saddens me to leave this wonderful group of folks I have had the privilege of working with.

I cannot thank you or the organization enough for all that you have done for me in assisting my professional growth. I have learned so much and that has been critical in enabling me to have the confidence to move forward with my career. I will miss you all deeply.

Sincerely, etc.
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You've told your boss, you've told your work-BFF, and now you want to scream it from the rooftops, but you should still exercise some restraint. Leaving a job, no matter how ideal the circumstances, can create a nerve-wracking atmosphere that extends outward to your entire work community. Management can worry who else might head out, employees can question their own prospects, and those who are largely unaffected can still feel nervous about the change. Be mindful of that as you share your news.

"Keep the number of people involved as small as possible," Ryan says. "You need to keep it close until you actually have the signed offer letter, and have delivered the information, preferably face-to-face. Unless somebody absolutely needs to know, they don't need to know until the actual people affected — your direct supervisors or the HR leaders in the organization — have been notified."

Once you inform your manager of your decision, you might even give them the courtesy of asking how they would prefer the news be shared. For example, would they like you to inform someone else first? Is it okay if you tell other people with whom you work closely so that you can all work on the transition together? Your boss might give you an absolute yes, or tell you to hold off for a day or two, but either way, they'll likely appreciate that you asked.
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It's a nightmarish scenario: You finally get the nerve to speak to your boss, you sit down with them and break the news, and then they bid you good day, permanently, wishing you luck and ordering you to pack up your belongings and vacate your space in 15 minutes. Maybe they even call security.

It is pretty unlikely that you'll be given the boot right after you give your notice, Paul reassures, but it is not impossible, especially for employees who are higher up the totem pole, or who employers fear will take valuable contacts or files with them.

"Situations where I’ve seen someone escorted out or shut out of a computer network is if there's a real risk of a privacy or sabotage issue," he explains. "If a company knows someone's going to work for their main competitor down the street, they're rightfully going to want to be careful about allowing you to have access to all their confidential information or customer lists for a two-week period of time."

Workers who are valued (or feared) in this way probably have more extensive employee agreements in the first place, and in that case, management might prefer to pay an employee for those two weeks (or however long) after they're gone, than keep a potential spy around. Most experts agree, however, that you can generally tell if you're at risk of immediate dismissal based on others' past experiences.

"If this has happened to others in the past at your current employer, and you think there’s a chance you will be immediately terminated when you give notice, mention this when you accept the new job offer," Marinelli says. "Often, your new employer will agree to bring you on sooner if you become available."
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Yes! You should negotiate on your way in, and do the same on your way out. Not only will it help you use up any remaining perks that you've earned, but it will also help to determine the best way to leave your current job.

"Your start date is always something you should talk about in the negotiation with the new employer. That way the employer and the potential employee are all in agreement," Ryan says.

Before you pick those end and start dates, look at any benefits that you haven't used up yet. You may have vacation time or sick days that you won't be able to collect on after your last day, but you might be able to work them into your timeframe of leaving, without being shady. If you have a good working relationship with your boss, instead of taking a week of vacation knowing that you'll resign as soon as you get back, work that into your suggested end date.

Ryan suggests giving your boss a little more notice than usual and then saying, "I have two weeks of vacation. Can I give you a month of notice, take those two weeks of vacation, and then use the other two weeks to transition?" Your boss will have longer to look for a replacement, you get to enjoy paid time off before starting on your next adventure, and you've made yourself look thoughtful all at the same time.
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