A reader writes:
I have a job that I mostly love. This is the first job I’ve had where I feel fully competent and even excellent at what I do. My manager is amazing, the office culture is everything I could ever hope for, the money and benefits are good, and the work I do is engaging and fulfilling. The industry, however, is not. You see, I work for a tobacco wholesaler.
Since day one I’ve been uneasy about the product. Obviously tobacco products carry a well-known health risk and stigma. We’re not “Big Tobacco” by any means, but we do profit off the sale and use of a product that is addictive at best and deadly at worst. But it was the first job offered to me after five months of unemployment, and everything else about it is great. I was mostly able to ignore my misgivings for about a year. But in February, my dad was diagnosed with Stage IV Lung Cancer. I almost didn’t go into work the next day and spent pretty much the whole week crying in the bathroom. I told my manager and the owner of the company, and they’ve both been incredibly supportive, encouraging me to take as much time off as needed and not to worry about PTO limits.
I nearly quit on the spot, but fear of unemployment and my dad’s encouragement convinced me to stick it out and see if I was able to see it a little different after a few weeks or months. Well, it’s been 4 months, and despite my best efforts, I’m still resentful of the industry, and it’s been showing at the office. Too many things remind me of my dad and his illness. At the very least I’m pretty good about going to my boss and saying, “Hey, I’m having one of those days,” and she keeps everyone off my tail as much as possible. But as accommodating as everyone has been, I’ve decided to search for a new job.
I let my manager know, as we have a good relationship and she had initially broached the subject when I first told her about my dad. When the owner found out, he offered me a raise, better hours, and even the option to start a fund for lung cancer research and support with company money to convince me to stay. He understood that it wasn’t about the money but said he still had to try because they would hate to see me go. I assured him that when I go I will provide at least four weeks of notice and I absolutely will not be leaving until the right job comes along.
So, I guess my questions are these: First, do you have any suggestions for how to deal with my resentment at the office? I’m usually really good at policing my emotions when I’m on the clock, but I’m past my limit here. I don’t want to be the Sally Sad Sack that brings the entire office down. Second, how do I tell interviewers and online applications why I’m leaving my job? I just don’t want to come across as a martyr trying to gain sympathy points (or start crying in the middle of the interview!). For that matter, how do I approach the potential time off issue? I don’t expect to get PTO right off the bat, and that’s fine, but whether it’s paid or not, I may need to take time off suddenly and don’t want to be seen as unreliable or demanding.
Thank you for any insight you might have. Sometimes I wonder if I’m being completely irrational about the whole situation, but it’s really difficult to remain objective while in the middle of something like this.
I’m so sorry you and your family are dealing with this.
Now, I say this as someone whose father died of esophageal cancer caused by smoking so I’m pretty damn sympathetic, but: You can’t walk around simmering with resentment at work. They’re paying you to work there, whatever you think of their product, you accepted the job of your own free will, and you owe it to them to perform at a reasonably high level — or, if you can’t, to acknowledge that and leave. Otherwise, you’re acting in bad faith toward them by not upholding your end of the bargain, and potentially harming your own professional reputation too.
I am no fan of the tobacco industry, no fan at all — but there are many legal products being sold out there that sicken and kill many of us: meat and other animal products (cancer and heart disease), junk food (diabetes and obesity-related diseases), alcohol (accidents and alcoholism-related diseases), and more. You should absolutely follow your moral compass in deciding where you work … but once you’re there, you need to own that choice and not penalize others for it.
So you’re right to be job searching, but if you can’t keep your resentment in check until you find another job, you might be better off leaving, even if it’s just through a leave of absence that you negotiate with your employer (which isn’t unreasonable if you want to spend more time with your dad right now).
As for what to tell interviewers about why you’re leaving your job, it’s fine to say that you thought you’d be comfortable working for the tobacco industry but realized over time that you weren’t. People will understand that and you don’t need to go into detail about your family’s situation.
If you get an offer, at that point you can explain that you have a seriously ill parent and know you’ll need some time off at some point, possibly without a lot of notice, and that you’re willing to take it unpaid but wanted to to make them aware of the situation. Most employers will be fine with that. (I had to do the exact same thing when I changed jobs while my dad was sick. My employer, like most, was very understanding. If they’re not, take that as valuable information about the work environment.)
Good luck to you and your family while you deal with this. I hope your dad is doing okay.