Your Career: Don’t Follow Conan’s Example

By Eve Tahmincioglu
|  Sunday, Jan 17, 2010  |  Updated 9:30 PM EDT
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Your Career: Don’t Follow Conan’s Example

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O’Brien’s unusual statement may look like a great bargaining tool for an employee who wants to rally public opinion to get what he wants, but for most regular working stiffs, such a public move is seen as a universal career no-no.

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Late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien got to do something last week that almost every disgruntled employee would love to do: speak his mind.

In a resignation/ultimatum letter to his employer NBC, he publicly aired his unhappiness with the network’s decision to shift  “The Tonight Show,” which he hosts, to a later time slot in order to move former host, Jay Leno, to 11:30 p.m. EST.

O’Brien condemned NBC’s decision in the letter, and did so with his signature sardonic humor right from the salutation.

“People of Earth,” he began.

“I grew up watching Johnny Carson every night and the chance to one day sit in that chair has meant everything to me. I worked long and hard to get that opportunity, passed up far more lucrative offers, and since 2004, I have spent literally hundreds of hours thinking of ways to extend the franchise long into the future. It was my mistaken belief that, like my predecessor, I would have the benefit of some time and, just as important, some degree of ratings support from the prime-time schedule,” he wrote.

“But sadly,” he added, “we were never given that chance.”

The letter became an immediate sensation on the Internet, and many have hailed it as a classy move by a man who feels he’s been wronged and is now ready to move on to new opportunities if his employer doesn’t give in.

(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

O’Brien’s unusual statement may look like a great bargaining tool for an employee who wants to rally public opinion to get what he wants, but for most regular working stiffs, such a public move is seen as a universal career no-no. 

Risky business
A resignation letter should be just that — a resignation, said Vince Holt, president of Management Recruiters of Mercer Island, Wash. It should be short and sweet, he added, and not a vehicle to tell managers what you think, make ultimatums, or try to get something out of your employer.

“That’s a dangerous game,” he said. “If I were NBC, I would call Conan’s bluff.”

Even if O’Brien gets what he wants, it may not bode well for his future relationship with his employer.

“Nobody likes having their back pushed up against the wall,” said Roberta Chinsky Matuson, president of Human Resource Solutions and author of forthcoming “Tossed Into Management! The New Manager's Guide to Influencing Up and Down the Organization.” “If by chance you do get what you asked for, it will only be a matter of time before your company has found someone who is ‘easier to work with.’ ”

By making the letter public, O’Brien is hoping to garner public opinion and help his cause. And in the age of Twitter and Facebook, it’s easier than ever to get your message out there. However, most employee resignation letters, especially those deriding an employer, should not be tweeted.

Why? Because O’Brien is a famous comedian and you’re not.

“I did see Conan's letter, and while I found it funny and amusing, it's nothing I would ever recommend to a regular working Joe,” said Andrew Rosen, founder and editor of career advice blog Jobacle.com and author of the online book “The Exit Guide: How to Leave a Job the Right Way.” “Resignation letters should be a private communication between the employee and their direct supervisor. However, it's hard to argue that point cause in Conan's case, he's put himself in a no-lose situation.” 

Clearly, media attention for O’Brien is a good thing, but dogging a boss or company virally isn’t a great idea.

“Defamation comes to mind, especially if unfounded accusations are made,” said Scott Barer, an employment attorney in Woodland Hills, Calif., who advises clients on how to write resignation letters.

“Conan’s situation is extraordinary, with millions of dollars at stake. Plus, he and his employer are very high profile,” he added. “Given that he addressed it to ‘People of Earth,’ clearly it was intended for a much larger audience than his boss. Thus, I don’t think it’s fair to compare his situation to the rest of us ‘mere mortals.’” 

Keep it professional and private
Elisabeth, a New York publicist who did not want her full name used because she didn’t want to make waves with her new or former employer, recently left her job for greener pastures and decided to go traditional with her resignation letter (names have been changed to “X”):

“Dear X,

“This letter states my official resignation from X Company.”

“I thank you for the opportunities I have had with X Company and wish you the best of luck.”

“Should you need me for a week or two I am happy to stay and help with any account work.”

Respectfully yours,

Elisabeth

“I did want to say much more about the direction of the company, my own disappointment at how employees are treated, and the overall lack of respect the manager gives off,” she said. “But, alas, I kept it professional and fairly simple.”

If you just can’t bring yourself to write a simple, non-disparaging letter, then you may want to consider not writing a resignation letter at all.

Bypassing a resignation letter won’t hurt your career, said Paul Sorbera, president of Alliance, a New York-based recruiting firm for investment bankers and traders. Verbally informing your managers and human resources is just as acceptable, he said, and you don’t risk writing something that could be misunderstood.

“Anything in writing can always come back to get you,” he said.

A graceful exit
If you just feel a need to write that letter, you should also think about when to submit it, said Daphne Houston, CEO, Federal Job Search Center. “So many company policies have changed with so much turnover, stress and turmoil in the workplace that turning in the letter too soon, and they can send you packing right away, maybe or maybe not honoring the fact that you gave notice, and escort you right out the door,” she said.

It remains to be seen if NBC will show O’Brien the door, but word is that Fox would be more than happy to offer him a job if he does officially resign. 

And that’s exactly why O’Brien can pull off a very public, very honest resignation letter — and most of the rest of us probably can’t.

“If you have the clout, financial resources and global market appeal as does Conan, then go for it,” said Wendy S. Enelow, co-founder of Resume Writing Academy and director of the 2010 Career Thought Leaders Conference.

“Otherwise, I'd keep it simple, stick to the facts and walk away,” she said. “The only person who really gets harmed by a grandiose display is the employee who now becomes a job seeker in a market that's terrible and has bad relations with an employer that he needs a good reference from.”

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