columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I'm in the process of looking for a new job. My skills are in demand and I'm pretty sure I'll be giving notice in the next few months.

Whenever anyone has left my company, my boss and the director always moan about how the person who left didn't first come to them with their complaints. They say this as if it's a horrible thing to do. "If only Fergus had told us he was unhappy, we could have made it better."

Do you think employees have an obligation to speak up when unhappy?

For context, while some of the things I don't enjoy could be fixed (the work isn't as technical as I like and they could easily put me on another project), there are other things that can't be fixed so easily (we've gone from having five women on staff to just me and it's pretty lonely here). It's a good job and I've enjoyed my time here, but I don't see long-term potential, so moving on just makes sense. Does an employee ever really "owe" it to the employer to bring up complaints first before looking?

Green responds:

You're not obligated to bring up complaints before you start looking for another job. You're allowed to decide that you want to leave at any time, for any reason or for no reason.

That said, I'd argue that part of being a good employee working for a good employer is that you should talk to your manager about things that are making you unhappy enough to consider leaving if a) the things are fixable and b) you would stay if they were fixed.

A big caveat here, though, is that whether something is fixable can be hard to judge accurately. In my own work, I've drawn complaints out of people who weren't speaking up on their own because they were sure it couldn't be fixed, and I was able to change the thing that was bothering them almost immediately (sometimes in less than a week). Sometimes something that seems insurmountable to you turns out to be relatively easy and painless for your manager to address -- and sometimes she would actively want to address it if she knew about it.

But if you don't think you're working at a decent employer to begin with, it's reasonable to choose not to invest the time, energy, and capital that it would take to talk through the issue, in part because of the "why bother" factor (meaning that there might be plenty of other problems and addressing a few will still leave you in a cesspool of dysfunction, so why bother?).

I do think, though, that if you're not willing to bring up problems to someone positioned to do something about them (whether or not they actually will), you forfeit the standing to complain to others at work. If your boss and director are saying "If only Fergus had told us he was unhappy, we could have made it better" because they learned Fergus was complaining to other people, I think that's legit.

But if they're wringing their hands like this simply because someone left? That's just business. And if they really want to hear about people's concerns before they leave, there are lots of ways to do that -- like creating a culture where people feel safe expressing concerns and then actively soliciting input from people long before they start thinking of leaving.

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