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Reactions to departing workers vary.
Two weeks’ notice is two-edged sword.
Few rules cover leaving.
Lame-duck blues.

Special for USA TODAY

By Julia Lawlor

You’ve accepted another job and given the boss two weeks’ notice. Time to relax, finish your projects and say a graceful goodbye.

Unless, as once happened to Deborah Snow Walsh, your co-workers turn on you. One took her files and began publicly criticizing them, says Walsh, who’s now a senior vice president for the outplacement firm Lee Hecht Harrison in Deerfield, Ill. It was a long two weeks.

But it could be a boring two weeks too. There you are, twiddling your thumbs, while in the next room, important business is being discussed. "Forgotten but not gone," says Wilmette, Ill., career expert Marilyn Moats Kennedy. "People swirl around you and ask you to Xerox stuff, because after all, you’re not doing anything."

The truth is, there aren’t many rules governing what happens in the twilight zone between the time an employee quits and the moment he or she walks out the door. But, this looks like a year when many workers will find out what it’s like to be a lame duck. Jumping form job to job is back in fashion. While layoffs remain in the news, unemployment – at 5.7% -- is near a four-year low. A whopping 3.5 million jobs were added to the economy last year and steady growth is expected this year as well.

"Two years ago, people were hanging onto jobs for dear life," says labor economist Audrey Freeman. "They were scared. They ‘re not now. Anyone who’s getting a little bored has an opportunity that hasn’t been available in the last three or four years. It’s a good time to have a roving eye."

What job jumpers will find, is that almost anything can happen after they say, "I quit." And that how they quit can often have a big effect on their careers.

Micheal Hortiatis, an executive for a large pharmaceutical company, gave Revlon Development on month’s notice when he resigned from his job as director of operations in 1987. There were no bad feelings, yet he noticed a difference immediately in the way he was treated. "That month was certainly low pressure," he says.

Ron Fry, publisher of Career Press in Hawthorne, N.J., often asks employees who’ve given notice to leave by the end of the day – and pays them for two weeks anyway. "Generally their heart isn’t going to be in it anymore," he says. "It’s uncomfortable to have them sitting around." Legally, an employee can blast into the bosses office, quit, and walk out the door right then. The nation’s "at will employment" doctrine says a worker is free to leave a job at any time for any reason.

But leaving a job in a hurry can be a big mistake.

Rick Miners, partner in the New York search firm of Sedlar & Miners, remembers a colleague who announced he had accepted another job and told his supervisor he was leaving that day. The boss protested, but three hours later, the man walked out. Eighteen months passed, and the old boss was hired to supervise the same guy at the other firm. That boss, "was like an elephant," says Miners. "He didn’t forget" and life was uncomfortable for both. Moral of the story: Use the Golden Rule in your professional life, Miner says, because "you never know where the boss is going to end up."

Who decreed that two weeks was the right length of time? Many experts say the notice period stems from the common two-week pay period.

Others say it’s the minimum required for the employer to arrange an "orderly transition." Yet most managers say it’s virtually impossible to find a replacement for a professional manager in two weeks. According to the Society for Human Resources Management, it takes an average 26 days to fill a position with someone from outside the company.

Sanford Jacoby, professor of management at UCLA, says the concept of both employer and employee giving notice dates back to old English law.

"In England in the 19th century you could be arrested if you went out on strike without giving notice," Jacoby says.