If being laid off is the corporate version of a sucker punch, mass termination via form letter is more like a round of carpet bombing. A few years ago, AOL informed me that my “engagement for content services” was no longer needed in a company-wide email that addressed me as “Hi There.” Emboldened by visions of financial ruin, I composed a scathing essay that ran on a popular humor website.
“Are you sure you want to burn that bridge?” asked a concerned friend. “You’ll never work with them again.” He had a point. Conventional wisdom says that trashing an employer is bad business. Rather than piercing AOL’s armor, it’s possible I’d only dent my own. What if I came off as an entitled crybaby, suspiciously interested in workers’ rights only after getting rejected? But when the piece went live, commenters cheered me on, and my bitter words were picked up across the internet. Surprisingly, freelance job offers piled up in my inbox—good ones. After years of lowbrow “content creation,” I’d fired back and, in the process, gained respect as a serious writer.
Pre-internet, the public kiss-off was essentially nonexistent, save for the rare office legend who gave his boss the finger. But as our jobs move into virtual spaces with employers we’ve never met, it’s hard to resist the impulse to turn a burned bridge into a shared bonfire by going viral.
Online brush-offs aren’t limited by platform. In 2013, Marina Shifrin quit her job at Next Media Animation by posting a YouTube video of herself dancing to the lyrics from Kanye West’s “Gone.” Nearly 20 million people viewed her routine, and eight years after its release, the song showed up on the Billboard Hot 100. Shifrin’s internet fame wasn’t temporary, either; these days, she’s on the writing staff of Comedy Central’s late-night show @midnight.
Bridge burners occasionally do double duty as whistle- blowers, as when Wendy Bradshaw, a special education teacher from Florida, resigned last October with a Facebook post that also blasted education reforms. Then there’s former Goldman Sachs vice president Greg Smith. Two months after being denied a million-dollar promotion, Smith published a New York Times op-ed in 2012 detailing how “morally bankrupt” his colleagues were. The missive was juicy enough to lead to a book, Why I Left Goldman Sachs. Released barely six months after his departure, the tell-all bombed, though it netted Smith a $1.5 million advance.
This year, Talia Jane, a one-time customer service rep for the Yelp-owned Eat24 took to Medium to tear down the company’s treatment of employees with “An Open Letter to My CEO.” On February 19, she published the screed outlining how Eat24’s terrible pay, in combination with exclusionary Bay Area real estate prices, had left her teetering on the poverty line. Seemingly moments later, the backlash had begun. Online pundits couldn’t shake the entitled millennial in their sights, digging through her Instagram history to uncover smoking guns in the form of semi-expensive bourbon and face peels. By February 22, the blogosphere’s response had metastasized in the form of another Medium post titled “A self-righteous open letter to people who write self-righteous open letters to people who write self-righteous open letters...” We’re living in a post-Jane era, when spiteful declarations of independence feel too much like navel-gazing to be taken seriously. It seems I slid past the closing doors just in time: Last year, I quit the editorial job I’d been offered in the wake of my AOL essay to spend more time writing, but I found it difficult not to reach for my trusty old weapons.
I tapped once more into the well of vengeance and virality with a sophomore kiss-off essay for the same publication—this time about the blogs that paid me poorly and then died, stranding my work in the internet’s version of purgatory. The second post garnered a bigger response than the first: more comments, better job offers. Turns out, the people who matter—your future colleagues and bosses—won’t hold your indignance against you. They’ve worked for the same monsters.
No, it’s the internet you need to fear, that latent force forever trawling for argumentative gristle. The question is no longer: What will my next boss think? It’s more like: Do I want search results for my name to pull up essays calling me an entitled millennial? I wouldn’t recommend it.