Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/6/2009 4:48:49 PM ET 2009-07-06T20:48:49

Richard Laermer, CEO of New York-based RLM PR, has noticed a disturbing trend lately. Employees who quit aren’t giving the customary two weeks’ notice, and some are even breaking noncompete agreements they signed.

“It’s the weirdest thing,” he says. “After 19 years of doing this job, as a CEO no less, I find myself shocked at how people are doing this.”

Laermer suspects it all started after he announced layoffs in November and then canceled the Christmas party.

Many of the employees felt angry and nervous, and they wondered if the axe might fall on them, he surmises. And despite his efforts to quell employees’ fears, saying he’d borrow money if he had to before he made another job cut, some workers bolted for new jobs — without any concern about burning bridges.

At a time when so many companies are laying off workers, slashing wages and benefits, and instituting furloughs, it’s not surprising that some employees feel no obligation to be nice when they head out the door, says David Kaplan, management professor for Saint Louis University. “It’s understandable,” he adds, “because they feel the employer has violated the psychological contract with employees, and they don’t feel they owe them anything.”

S.T.G, an employee for a Chicago-based general contractor who did not want his full name used because he didn't want to jeopardize his job, says his employer instituted an array of cutbacks about a month ago — including reductions in pay, vehicle allowance and sick days — and announced a mandatory one-week furlough for the end of the summer.

“This is on top of cost measures at the beginning of the year, which included salary freezes across the board, no bonuses paid out and stopping 401K matching,” he says.

The slashing prompted one of his co-workers to quit as soon as he found a job that paid better. “He resigned and left that day. No two weeks’ notice,” he adds.

S.T.G. has one question: “If your employer has cut your salary and benefits to where your family is struggling financially, do you owe your employer that two weeks’ notice when you leave?”

‘No one is playing nice anymore’
Whether it’s giving notice, training your replacement or abiding by noncompete agreements you may have signed, these post-employment niceties that were expected once upon a time are not a given in today’s workplace.

“I think it’s a function of the economy,” says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute. “If your employer has been treating you well, morally you should give as much notice as you can. On the other hand, if your boss is screwing you, you don’t want to be nice.

“It’s a dog fight out there. No one is playing nice anymore. This is more ethics than law.”

Indeed, you’re not legally obligated to give notice, unless you have a detailed employment contract that says you have to. But even in that case, Maltby adds, few employers will sue you for not doing so because it’s not worth the time and expense.

“Most employers will be accommodating,” says John Verderese, leader of the talent management group at PricewaterhouseCoopers, “because most employers know, once employees make a decision to leave, their mind is elsewhere.”

If you’re so mad at your former employer and take company secrets and clients with you, or go to work for your company’s competitor even though you signed a noncompete agreement, that could be another story.

Randy Kahnke, an attorney with Faegre & Benson, says it all depends on which state you live in and the type of contract you entered into with your employer .

“Noncompetes are governed by state law,” he explains. “Florida, for example, is an example of a pro-employer state, where California prohibits enforcement of noncompetes.”

It also depends on whether you were laid off or you left a job voluntarily. “In Michigan, if a noncompete covenant reads that it only applies in circumstances of ‘voluntary termination,’ then involuntary termination does not preclude the employee from working for a competitor,” he adds.

In matters where an employee’s pay was cut and they were periodically furloughed, a worker could argue that the employer didn’t live up to their end of the agreement of providing full employment, says New York labor attorney Mark Risk.

Also, in this economy, some companies probably are not in a position to spend lots of money on a legal fight unless what you’re doing will truly damage a firm’s bottom line, legal experts say.

Consider karma
Laermer has all his employees sign an agreement when they’re hired stating they won’t go and work with former employees if they leave his company.

In the last few months, however, he’s had a few workers break that agreement. “They think we won’t pay for lawyers now to come after them,” he says.

While he didn’t have the resources to take legal action earlier this year because business was hurting, he says he plans on pursuing the matter now.

So, if you assess your situation and decide there will be few legal repercussions to leaving on bad terms, you should still consider karma. With the cyber social networking explosion, what you do at one employer may come back to haunt you.

If you leave without notice, you’re not just leaving your boss in a lurch, you’re also leaving your co-workers holding the bag, points out PricewaterhouseCoopers Verderese. Those workers, he says, may be people you may need help from some day.

And forget about good reviews from a former boss if you end up back on the job market again. Even though most managers are nervous about saying too much when it comes to references, their silence or lack of enthusiasm to a prospective employer can spell doom for your job prospects.

Given all the negative karma that could potentially rain down upon you, Maltby from the National Workrights Institute still recommends employees look at their individual situations.

If the new company wants you to start right away, and your present employer has cut your pay and benefits to the bone, he maintains it might not be in your economic interest to stay on board for even one more day.

“You shouldn't lose your new job to avoid the possibility of some day getting a bad review,” he says.

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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