My Boss Quit. Should I Take His Job?

Advice from The Sherwins for October 2019

Changes at the Top

Hey Sherwins,

I’ve been given an opportunity, and I don’t know if I should take it or not. 

My creative director just quit. I found out on Wednesday night and his last day was Friday, so it was sudden. He said that he was leaving for personal reasons, and I have no reason to doubt him, but he also hasn’t been available to talk since then.

I’m writing to you because when I came in on the next Monday, the head of design offered me my old boss’s job. He said it was a great opportunity and perfect timing, since I’m up for promotion at the end of the year anyway. 

I’ve never been given a chance like this before, but I’m not sure if it’s ethical to take his job. Should I do it?

—F in Seattle

Hi F,

Is this what you want? Then sure, go for it.

Actually, we can’t tell you if you should take the job or not. Not because we’d be liable for whatever happens after you decide—that’s why we have the little disclaimer at the bottom of our column. When we give advice, whether we’re teaching or advising or writing books, we do our best to make sure that people feel like they have control over their own decisions. We ask questions and offer insights, not so that we can tell people what to do, but so that they know that they have a choice in the matter. Autonomy, agency—and how accessible those things are to others—they’re critical. So much of professional life tricks us into thinking we have no options when we do, or worse, that we have options when we don’t.

So we can’t tell you if you should take the job or not, F, because it’s important to us that you know it’s your choice to make. This could be an enormous decision or it could be a blip in your career, but it’s yours, and how you think through and consider opportunities is a fair reflection of how you operate in the world as a designer. Ultimately, you have to live with this decision that you’re making and all of the other decisions that come after it.

Or do you? This is where the designer part comes in, where we are building and delivering products that adjust the volume of people’s autonomy and agency. We’re pretty terrible about considering the consequences, the choices that other people are provided due to our actions. When we seize an opportunity or provide one to others, what if we don’t like the choices that they’re now able to make? How responsible are we? How responsible are they?

But let’s not fall too far down the hypothetical rabbit hole of ethics in design. After all, ethical decisions are not made by individuals, they’re made by individuals as members of a community. The question here isn’t whether it’s ethical for you to take this job, it’s whether the company is ethical in offering it to you, and whether your ability to make a choice has been irreparably compromised because of the offer. 

How do you figure that out? First, you need to know where you stand.

Did you want the job yesterday?

If you’re conflicted, which it sounds like you are, this first question is a good place to start. If you didn’t want the job yesterday, meaning the day before it was available, odds are, you aren’t going to want it tomorrow. 

Wants emerge and grow and evolve over time. Who knows, you might decide in six months that you want to open an ice cream shop. But this is an opportunity, not a new life mission. If it were that, you wouldn’t have to ask us about taking this job; you’d be asking if we had a line on a used ice cream fridge.

Opportunity is equal parts luck, skill, and preparation. Lean too heavily on any of those three things, and the whole situation will tip over into a vat of naiveté or hubris or some other undesirable trait imported from another language.

Do you know what you’re getting into?

Not to sound like an old dating advice column, but there’s a big difference between Mr. Right and Mr. Right Now. Is it, as the head of design said, perfect timing for you? Or is it perfect timing for him? 

We can all agree that this offer is risky for everyone. If you say no and consider leaving, the design department could be down two senior people. If you say yes, you might not ever be certain if you earned your promotion. How will everyone else at the company see you in this position? What about your team? Some designers waste years wondering if they’ve earned their place or just lucked into it, and some people work for those designers. Don’t let any of them be you.

If you take the job, you might not ever know the truth about the convenience factor, but you also can’t be expected to walk over to a new desk without a few answers, especially with this being a promotion. Does your company prefer internal hires for open positions? Can you afford an interim person in this role? Why isn’t this an external search? Who’s going to do your current job if you take this new one? (We’d add to this How on earth is the head of design going to handle the messaging around this? But again, your choice.)

Is this really about your boss?

There’s a certain camaraderie in design that not all other industries have. People talk about trusting their bosses. Managers and their direct reports go to happy hour and plan team vacations together. When something like this happens, it can be a shock on a number of levels. 

Are we in the business of designing experiences with empathy, or are we just in business? After all, F, you’re not taking “his job”. You’re not even being offered “his job”. He left that job. It’s not his anymore. For some people, this statement of fact is exactly what they need to hear to sign that contract. While for others, well, that fact sounds like “it’s not his job anymore, his loss!” and that sounds like something a horrible ice-cream-hating person would say. What we mean is that you shouldn’t be too quick to discount the emotional implications of your boss’s departure. He left and no one told you and wait hold up he left and no one told you. That’s unsettling, whether you were friends or not.

Regardless of whether you take this job here and now, or you take it later, whether you stay or go, perhaps the most important question is:

How are you going to prevent this from happening again?

Did your boss prepare you for this? Had you two talked about your plans for the end of year? Was he showing you how you could grow into being a creative director? Were you on a path?

Because of your question, we’re guessing that all of those answers are no. Your situation is just one of the many ways that a particular problem manifests itself in this industry, where everyone hits the cold hard bottom of the design ethics rabbit hole: People aren’t prepared for change, and they continue to not prepare for it.

We’re not just talking about catastrophes or emergencies, which are difficult enough to manage. We’re talking about simple things like a designer getting promoted or moving to a new department. A good manager should, at the very least, have a contingency plan for their own position and a career path for themselves and for each of their reports. These tools help managers to provide opportunities more consistently, and they also help everyone involved to make more informed choices.

It may look like there are a dozen ways to slice how this could play out, with all the necessary conversations about emails and surveys and milestones in mind, but let’s be clear about one thing: It will be nigh impossible to escape the circumstances of this opportunity. Your company is willing to put an employee in that position, following up a lack of planning with the illusion of choice. In the absence of a plan, of any prior discussions about what the future might have looked like for you and what role you had in determining it, you’re asking about the ethics of an opportunity that actually isn’t an opportunity at all.

Your company made a mistake not asking people to be prepared for change, not asking people about the future, not grappling with how responsible they were for the choices that their employees made. And now they want to promote you.

So, no, we can’t make this decision for you. 

But we can ask you again: Is this what you want?

All best,
The Sherwins

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Send questions to questions (at) askthesherwins (daht) com. All questions become the property of Ask The Sherwins, LLC and may be edited. Our advice shouldn't be construed as a replacement for the appropriate legal or professional counsel. This advice will retire on November 1, 2019.