can I give 2 weeks notice when my employer says they “expect” 4 weeks? — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I work at a large healthcare system and I am exploring new opportunities. We have a resignation policy that states that salaried employees (I fall into that category) are expected to give at least four weeks written notice of resignation. Additionally, it includes that personnel records will reflect if someone leaves before the “required” notice period.

In previous departures from organizations, I’ve given a two-weeks notice without too much issue. Any thoughts on giving only a two-week notice with my current employer even with the four-weeks notice expectation?

Yeah, some organizations are fond of announcing that they “expect” longer-than-standard notice periods from employees, without any real ability to require it.

Let’s talk about this in philosophical terms before we get to the practical ones.

Assuming that we’re talking about the U.S., where two weeks notice is the professional standard, and assuming that you don’t have an actual contract requiring longer notice (most U.S. employees don’t have contracts at all), most of the time this is B.S.:

1. First and foremost, two weeks is the professional convention. It’s what our employment system is built around, and generally employers make do with that just fine. (It’s worth noting that notice periods aren’t intended to give your employer time to hire and train your replacement — for most jobs, even four weeks wouldn’t be long enough for that. Rather, a notice period is just supposed to provide time for you to wrap up projects and transition them to whoever will be covering them in the interim.)

2. Expecting additional notice can put employees in difficult positions with their next jobs. It’s not generally too hard to set a start date for a new job four weeks off, but if you want to take any time off in between jobs, now you’re pushing the start date out further, and it can start to get harder to negotiate that.

3. When your employer has chosen not to give employees contracts (again, like most American employers) in order to preserve their ability to terminate your employment whenever they want, it’s pretty absurd to “expect” notice from you that they’re not willing to commit to themselves. (To be fair, if your employer always pays severance when they end someone’s employment — and when that severance always covers at least the same number of weeks of notice that they want from you — this argument holds less water.)

4. Moreover, most employers that ask for four weeks of notice or longer don’t bother to use that time well. A lot of people who give more than two weeks notice find that their employers don’t start on substantive transition work until close to the end of that period anyway.

So there’s the argument against it.

In practical terms, what happens if you give two weeks notice if your organization requires four? It depends on the organization. In some of them, absolutely nothing — sometimes that wording has been in the handbook forever but people give two weeks notice all the time and no one thinks anything of it … or they’d like more notice but are aware they won’t get it every time. In other cases, they’ll warn you that there’s a penalty for doing it — like that you won’t get your remaining accrued vacation time paid out (in states where they’re not legally required to pay it) or that you need to give the full four weeks in order to remain in good standing in their system, in case you apply again in the future. In theory it’s something that could come up in a future reference check too … but “we ask for four weeks of notice and she only gave two” isn’t especially damning.

And really, in every organization I’ve seen that asked for three or four weeks of notice, some people still resigned with less and just explained that their circumstances dictated that, and it goes fine. (It might not go fine if you’re dealing with a really problematic boss … but then the boss is more the problem than your notice period is.) In most cases, people are fine saying, “I know you prefer four weeks of notice, but unfortunately I couldn’t make the timing work out. But I’ll be here until (date two weeks away) and I’m committed to doing everything I can to help with a smooth transition.”

Now, there are some exceptions to this — jobs where longer notice isn’t just desired but is truly an industry norm beyond that one company, or where there’s obviously good reason for it (and healthcare, your field, is often one of those). If you’re in one of those and everyone you work with has always given the full four weeks — or someone didn’t and it caused great scandal — then you probably need to adhere to those norms.

But for most people, longer notice periods are more the employer’s hope than a true requirement* that has consequences for breaking it. The best thing you can do is to know your culture, know what people leaving before you have done, decide how much you care about what penalties (if any) your employer imposes on shorter notice periods, and then time your notice accordingly.

* To be clear, even two weeks notice isn’t a requirement, in the sense that there’s no legal way to enforce it. Leaving without notice can harm your reputation and affect future references — and I generally advise avoiding it except in unusual circumstances — but employers can’t make you stay if you decide to leave faster. 

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