the lawnmower message, the mangled journal articles, and other stories of deliberately burnt bridges — Ask a Manager

I recently asked about bridges you intentionally, happily burned. Here are 12 of my favorite stories you shared.

1. The fish tank

In college, I worked as a cashier at a national chain pet store. The pay was dismal but it was pretty easy work, so I stuck around. After working there for three years and getting promoted, I broke my foot (not at work). When I went in the next day and said I would need a stool/chair, the manager flatly refused, scoffed, and said, “If I can’t sit down, no one can.” (He definitely had a chair in his office so this was total BS.) I was the only cashier scheduled for that evening (and generally this was the case; there was never a back-up). I said, “Oh, okay, then I guess I have to quit.” I walked over to the fish tank area, dropped my register key in the biggest tank, and left out the side door. They called me three times the next day (and my emergency contact!) to ask where my key was. I never responded.

2. The glitter

Not me but a coworker. This coworker had been at this department forever, and the company offered early retirement payout twice during their time at the company, which they applied for but the department rejected both times. So they were BITTER and rightfully so.

This coworker had reached retirement age and quietly arranged it all with HR and didn’t tell a soul. Didn’t announce it, didn’t give notice, and got HR to delay routing all the paperwork until the day they left.

I came in one morning to find a trail of glitter from the front door to their office and the room practically wallpapered with comic strips and memes about bad bosses/quitting/see ya never. It was amazing. Funniest thing I’d ever seen in my life.

The cherry on top? The department replaced the carpet in the hallway a few months later and to this day I am convinced it is because they couldn’t get the glitter out of the carpet.

3. The training

I’ve burned exactly one professional bridge in my entire career and I 100% stand behind it. I worked at a really toxic job for a number of years and my resignation was just as toxic, but I made the mistake of agreeing to come in on Saturdays (for an abysmally low hourly rate) to train my replacement and answer questions (via email or text, specifically noted not to call during work hours) after I started in my new role. I wish I had known about AAM back then, because Alison’s advice about not doing this after quitting is spot on.

I was getting absolutely swamped with questions from the staff member who was temporarily covering my duties while they trained my replacement. When I didn’t immediately answer her emails, she texted. And if I took more than five minutes to text back, she called my personal phone. And if I didn’t answer my personal phone, she called my work number (it was listed on a public directory, I never gave it to her). I emailed my former boss about it the response was, “We’ve [management] discussed this and concluded that this is a personal issue between you and [staff member]. You can work it out between yourselves.”

I was just … livid. I sent an email back, after getting payment for the Saturday training I had already completed, stating, “I’ve discussed this with myself, because [staff member] is not my coworker or employee, and concluded that this is outside the scope of what we agreed on when I quit. I will no longer be answering questions or coming in on Saturdays to train [replacement], you can work out the transition between yourselves.” I blocked the staff member and my former boss on both my personal phone, marked emails from the company as spam, and screened any calls from them on my work phone. I was going through my spam folder a couple months later to look for something else and came across a reply from my old boss calling me wildly unprofessional while also simultaneously offering me an extra $10/hour to keep training on Saturdays. Gave me a good laugh.

4. The lawn

In college I worked for my local township’s Parks Department, mowing lawns. They usually sent summer workers out in teams of four, but when they realized I got my work done and didn’t break the mowers or trucks, they started sending me out alone, but with the same length punchlist as the four-man crews. I complained, but none of the bosses cared because the work was getting done. It was annoying, but the overtime money was good so I stuck around.

After I graduated college, I worked one last summer before starting my “real” job several states away. From the start of that summer, I repeatedly told my boss that if he kept sending me out alone to do the work of a full crew, I was going to mow my name into the big park next to city hall downtown on my last day. He thought I was joking. I had absolutely nothing to lose and I was not joking. On my last day, I dropped the deck on my mower so the blades were almost low enough to scrape the dirt and signed my name in 20-foot tall letters in the field next to city hall. It was a dry summer, so it took almost two months to grow out.

5. The flowers

Early in his career, my husband worked for the IRS and was up for promotion to the next class of government worker. He was passed over twice – the third time would have been an automatic promotion. His boss closed the rec instead of giving him the job and he started looking in the private sector. Once he got a new position and started climbing the corporate ranks, he sent his former boss a thank-you card when his salary hit twice what he’d been making at the IRS, and sent flowers when it hit three times.

He understands from former coworkers that the flowers went right in the trash.

6. The scientific articles

A lifetime ago, I was a copy editor at an international science journal that took itself very seriously. Despite this self-seriousness, the work atmosphere was a hot mess (lots of employees dating each other with regular office breakups and drama, many inappropriate comments said openly, some real problem employees tolerated for eons), mostly due to the intensely hands-off attitude of the department manager. If I had been paid in peanuts it would have been a raise, and I had the worst benefits allowable by law at the time. But they promised to train me and prepare me for a shiny, exciting future!

Well, after a few months it was made crystal clear that the training I was promised was not to occur, and then several of us overheard our great-grandboss declare there were “just way too many employees” in our division. I correctly deduced, as the most recent hire, that my time was probably coming to an end. So on my last day, I took a bunch of scientific articles (“The Precise Tensile Coefficient of Llama Fur: An Exhaustive Report”) and did a find/replace on key words so as to turn them into instant parodies (“The Precise Time-Traveling Mysteries of Llamas: An Exciting Exposé”) and sent them out as proofs in progress to the scientist authors moments before handing in my badge and going home.

I was told later by someone who stayed slightly longer that it caused a collective massive eyebrow raise from various science orgs, some very long talks about what was going on with the editors, and while a few authors found the “edits” terrifically funny, the rest were simply confused. Although I was told via email I was never to be hired again, the organization ended up firing the whole department for budget reasons and outsourcing cheaper editors in another country, so … oh well.

7. The maternity leave policy

I was pregnant. My nonprofit employer had seven full-time employees and no leave policies. My commute was 90 minutes, each way. Our board had just finished conducting a benefits analysis and every member of the org shared that we needed a family leave policy. So I told my boss at eight weeks I was pregnant and needed to start talking about what a leave policy would look like.

This seemed like a no-brainer – we should create a policy, right? Wrong. Our board chair, upon discovering that I was pregnant, claimed she couldn’t “waive a magic wand and create a maternity leave policy!” She refused the flexible arrangement I proposed (six weeks off, then part-time and remote until my child could go to daycare), and a few weeks later replaced my boss with someone who’d start 10 days before my due date. And as it became increasingly clear that I would, in fact, give birth (and therefore be out of the office, with or without “permission”), it was equally clear that no one was willing to tell me what leave I’d be provided.

Fast forward to Friday afternoon, exactly one month before my due date, the week before Christmas. I get an email from my new boss – who I haven’t met and won’t return my calls – laying out what my leave will be: four weeks, unpaid. I can’t work remotely at all, so I’m expected to commute (this job could be done from literally anywhere – I was a department of one!). And after four weeks I’m to be back in the office (…with my baby? I don’t know what they expected, because I told them my daycare started at 12 weeks).

I weighed my options. I was young – these were powerful board members. They had sway in the community. But also, I’m tired. I’m eight months pregnant. I literally have zero f**** to give at this point. So I decided to burn it all down. I forwarded the email from my “new boss” to the entire board and laid it out for them – that the team had asked for a leave policy, that I spent six months offering to negotiate this including with [board president], and that I was going to pack up my things Monday morning.

Our biggest funder – who’s on the board – immediately responded, “Can someone explain why we are refusing to provide a leave policy?” and then I logged off.

8. The psychic

I used to work every Saturday for a psychic who owned a used bookstore, because she needed someone to run the bookstore while she gave readings in the back room. She was a very difficult person to work for, and one day when she asked me to work overtime but later refused to pay me for that, I had enough. The next Saturday, I just didn’t show up.

She called me and said, “Why aren’t you at work?” I said, “Because I quit.” She said, “You quit?” I said, “You should have seen this coming. You’re supposed to be a psychic.” And I hung up.

9. The contract renewal

My former employer definitely sees this as bridge burning, but I see it as justified karma for rampant gender bias. I started my career in a consulting firm in a historically male dominated industry. Almost immediately I noticed a distinct pattern – a man and woman would be hired to the same team at the same time, with similar levels of experience, but the man would always come in at a slightly higher level and with significantly more pay than the woman. There were always justifications – “He had an MBA, not an MS” or “He spent two years working instead of getting an MBA”, etc. The only consistency was that the men always came out higher.

The final straw for me was learning that an incompetent (male) coworker of mine at the same level as me was making 30% more than I was. I literally had 10 times the sales as he had that year, which supposedly made up 80% of our performance evaluation metric. Soon after, one of my clients gave me an offer to come in-house for close to double my salary, which I happily took.

Then the “bridge burning” started. My new company still had a contract for the same work with my previous company, which I got to manage from the client side now. My old company replaced me with one of the incompetent, overpaid men on their side. Predictably, he did a subpar job – missed deadlines, significant errors (which he blamed our team for), and an arrogant attitude on top of everything. This wasn’t just my opinion – my new boss and coworkers all noted this man’s arrogance and how much of a drop in quality there was compared to my previous work. Our contract was up about a year after I joined, and we sent the project out to bid. Even though we knew we wouldn’t choose them, we still invited my former company to bid on the project (which is a lengthy process), but ultimately chose a different vendor.

When we shared the news, one of the partners from my old job called me up to tell me how much I’d regret this and how much I had messed up his metrics for the year by losing this project, and how disrespecting “where I came from” would haunt me in the future. So far no haunting yet, our new consultant does an amazing job, and at least six other women from my previous firm left to work for clients and then fired our old company. So maybe it was our old company that burned the bridge with us.

10. The screeds

Not me, but someone who used to work for my employer. Apparently he was fired and viewed it as wrongful, so he took the time to write and send an email with six HEFTY paragraphs before he lost access about how the company was Doing Wrong By Him, how they’d abused his goodwill, how everyone knew him and should raise a fuss with HR, etc. This was the politest, quietest member of our office facilities team; I’m not sure he ever said more than about three words to most people. IT quickly came in and deleted that email from everyone’s inbox.

24 hours later, the guy managed to email the all-office distribution list from his personal email with a second AND THIRD lengthy screed about how terrible they were to him, how he’d been sick, how dare they fire him, here’s his contact info in case anyone wanted to go work with him when he found a new job…

Pretty sure that bridge was burning merrily. And hey, IT discovered a gap where outside addresses could email our all-office distro system because of him.

11. The truth-telling

I was working at a very dysfunctional company where the CEO’s brand of chaos and tyranny was most of the problem. When people would resign (frequently), he would insist that no one could be notified, but would still often make them work their notice period. So people would just suddenly disappear with no announcement – before or after, there was no transition documentation or delegation of tasks or roles, people would just suddenly be gone (like unpersoned). Their email would bounce and no one would know anything about it. Even managers would be out of the loop on who was supposed to do their work or where their deliverables were, etc.

So when I resigned, I told my manager (with whom I had a good relationship and who was also on his way out) that I was giving notice and telling everyone. He just said, “OK.” I toured the whole company, announcing to everyone, en masse, loudly, that I was giving two weeks notice and if they needed anything or had any questions, to come to me. Then, last and least, I popped by the CEOs office. He looked up and said, “I have a call, what do you need?” and I responded, “I’m giving two weeks notice and I just told everyone in the whole office, so I wanted to tell you quickly as well.” I was critical path on so much stuff that he couldn’t risk pushing me out early.

During our exit interview, he said, “This is a very stressful environment and not everyone can handle it.” “Well,” I said, “It’s your company, so if it’s stressful and people don’t want to work here, it’s because you want it that way.” I realize that this was all terrifically rude and not at all professional. I regret nothing! My manager was an excellent reference for years and I don’t think it harmed me professionally at all.

12. The sticker chart

A few years back, I wrote in about my bizarre dysfunctional office where we had a sticker chart where we had to indicate how we were feeling that day. We were treated very badly in that workplace but there was one woman who received some uniquely horrific treatment that I still struggle to comprehend. My favorite thing I’ve ever seen in a workplace was when she handed in her resignation, she strode right up to the sticker chart and slapped her sticker into the “feeling fantastic” box.

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