Watch Me Quit

Marina Shifrin dancing in her quit video

In an era where U.S. unemployment figures typically range between five and eight percent (and were as high as 10% in 2009), it might seem oddly inappropriate to celebrate the mundane act of quitting a job—especially when the event is made public at a significant risk to one’s reputation.

Yet, this is exactly what people are doing with their final hours at work. People are using company property and time to choreograph elaborate media happenings, recording them on video and posting them online for a global audience. Although we have no idea who these people are, what they do for a living or why they’re leaving, we are captivated by the spectacle.

Girl holding sign saying "I quit"It’s not difficult to understand why “quit videos” are so magnetic. Nearly everyone who works for a living has been compelled, at some time or another, to seethe silently while enduring an employment scenario that left us wanting more. Perhaps it’s a stupid boss that sets us on edge, or a noisy cubicle placed near the break room. Or it could be the vapid nature of most work environments, a landscape overrun with micromanaging leadership, indecipherable buzzword jargon, and organizations who incessantly bang us over the head about their “commitment to culture.”

Most of us follow the rules of cordial professionalism when leaving our place of employment: we provide two week’s notice, complete the required paperwork, and hand off any projects currently in-stream. We might even have a small party or a round of drinks with our coworkers. We promise to keep in touch, say nice things and move on. It’s all very benign.

Increasingly, though, departing employees are electing to tender their resignations in the form of elaborately staged events. The sheer orchestration required to pull off these stunts is impressive: there’s the coffee shop barista who hired a barbershop quartet, the Renaissance Hotel employee accompanied by a marching band, an insurance salesman dressed as a banana, and the GoDaddy engineer who announced her new puppeteering career via Super Bowl commercial.

And sometimes, the employers fight back. When Marina Shifrin quit her job by dancing to a song by Kanye West in front of 18 million viewers, her viral legacy was cemented (including a number of copycats). However, her former company countered the attack with a video of their own, taking advantage of the opportunity to elevate their name in front of a newly-expanded audience.  Today, Ms. Shifrin writes for Glamour and tweets about orange juice, but one gets the sense that her fleeting celebrity will sustain the semblance of a career (for the time being, at least).

From the perspective of the departing employee, it’s difficult to pinpoint the intended benefit of quit videos. It could be the chance to become an Internet celebrity that’s so intoxicating, or it could be something more deeply psychological. Quitting a job is an inherently solitary exercise; everyone else is a part of something, and we’ve made a decision to extricate ourselves from it. Perhaps the mass exposure of fame provides a sense of immediacy, smoothing the transition from one social circle to another.

factory workers sitting at tables doing menial laborStill, one interesting aspect of note is that most quit videos begin with a sincere explanation of what we’re about to see. Sometimes the tone is almost apologetic, as if the creators are aware that what they’re doing is borderline inappropriate but Darn it, I was mistreated and my story must be heard. Taken in this context, quit videos operate as a rejection of the flawed organizational dynamics found in many corporate ecosystems.

Smart, creative employees long ago stopped thinking of themselves merely as human capital. Perhaps this form of social media offers a greater good yet to be discovered: the actualization of the self, and a public opportunity to reclaim one’s dignity in the face of dehumanization. Whatever the rationale, Frederick Winslow Taylor is surely spinning in his grave.

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