“Don’t burn your bridges” …Except in These 3 Situations

We’ve all had moments where we force ourselves to bite our tongue. Maybe it’s an erratic boss, a less-than-tactful coworker, or a downright rude customer.  In the moment, you sit there calmly, with the age-old adage in the back of your mind….don’t burn your bridges.

This long-time career advice is well-intended; Any seasoned professional will tell you that the world is smaller than you think. But when taken to an extreme, this advice can leave people feeling powerless in futile, toxic, and even abusive situations.

My father, reflecting upon a very successful career, once told me, “I always lived by the adage, don’t burn any bridges, but as I look back, some of those bridges deserve to be burned.”

Here are three situations where you shouldn’t just grin and bear it:

The person (or company) has a terrible reputation.

During college, I worked for a small business. The owner was awful. He had bad relationships with his vendors, frequent emotional outbursts, and to top it off, our checks were always late. Anyone you asked would describe him as a misogynistic jerk.

I eventually quit, saying, I was leaving for a “better opportunity” (In truth, I didn’t have another job lined up). I stuck out my several weeks of notice, despite a plethora of passive-aggressive remarks from a grown man.

Here’s what I wish I knew then: If you experience someone as consistently terrible, you’re probably not the only one they’re doing that to. Everyone has a reputation, and a reference from someone with an awful one isn’t as helpful to you as you think.

I could have easily gotten a reference from one of my colleagues or been upfront in future interviews about why I chose to leave. This guy was not the King of the World, but in a quest to not burn my bridges, I forced myself to stay way too long, and I paid an emotional price.

 You already tried (many times) to be diplomatic.

Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. If you’ve put your most strategic, thoughtful, kind-hearted self into making this work, only to be shut down, again, and again, and again, it’s time to burn the bridge.

I err on the side of giving people the benefit of the doubt, and I confess, I often let people have too many chances. But what I’ve painfully learned over time, is chance 7, or 8, or 9…usually aren’t any different. In fact, they’re almost NEVER any different.

Everyone has bad days and makes mistakes, and you certainly don’t want to write someone off too quickly. Yet, when someone shows you who they are (consistently), believe them. (Thank you, Maya Angelou).

There’s something undeniably weird going on.

If there’s something illegal, immoral, or just really fishy going on, don’t look the other way. These things very rarely get less suspicious over time. You don’t want to attach your reputation to a leader, or organization, that is (or soon to be) unethical. Don’t jump to conclusions, but don’t ignore that gut intuition either.

A few months ago, I watched The Dropout, on Hulu, it’s the miniseries that tells the story of Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos. Here’s the short of it- Theranos was an organization that went from a perceived “breakthrough medical technology company” to being recognized as a giant scam. Holmes, the founder, was recently found guilty of conspiracy and fraud. The entire company, several hundred people, was built on the lies of a few people at the top. But it took years for those lies to be exposed, it was long after things started feeling suspicious inside of the company.

The whistleblowers in that situation (Tyler Schultz, Adam Rosendorff, and Erika Cheung, most notably) will have a lasting reputation as upstanding, honorable people. The slew of scientists, salespeople, and mid-level leaders who knowingly chose to turn a blind eye…not so much.

Even if you’re not a whistleblower, if you have factual evidence something isn’t right, it’s worth leaving quickly.

“Burning a bridge” doesn’t give you permission to fly equally off the rails; It means not compromising yourself to save face in a situation that doesn’t deserve it.

If a bridge will do nothing but lead you back to an ever-lasting steaming pile of garbage, why not burn it?