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Ozzie announced his plans to step down from his role at Microsoft on October 18, 2010

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If it's not clear, note that "step down" can only be used for people in very senior positions (board members, royalty, etc). If you're an ordinary salaried worker, blue collar worker, or junior worker, you'd never use "step down" - you'd just use "resign." Really, it is a somewhat pretentious term. –  Joe Blow Jul 6 '11 at 21:11
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4 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Step down is just a euphemism for resign. It could indicate, as Tragicomic said, that the position being left was one of importance, but that need not be the case to make use of the euphemism.

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One could argue that since resigned is a euphemism for was fired, it was necessary to create another euphemism to cover the original meaning which was thereby left without a valid term to describe it! –  FumbleFingers Jul 6 '11 at 17:16
    
"Resigned" is not the same as "was fired". It is quitting. –  theidiotbox Jul 6 '11 at 21:27
    
@theidiotbox: The nature of euphemisms is that they are often technically inaccurate. People often say things like, "Sally and I decided we needed some time apart" when what he really means is "Sally dumped me". There was no "we decided" involved. That's why it's a "euphemism" and not a "literal statement of fact". –  Jay Oct 25 '11 at 18:22
    
Reminds me of a press conference I saw once where company A bought out company B, and the president of company A was asked if they would be laying off people from company B. He replied, "That's hard to say. Staffing may increase, or it might fluctuate." So the opposite of "increase" is "fluctuate"? Oh, okay. –  Jay Oct 25 '11 at 18:25
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Compared to "resign", "step down" has a connotation of an amicable parting with the possibility of a continuing relationship. The word "resign" is often used when employee parts employer over some disagreement or other negative cause.

If I recall correctly, Bill Gates' active role at Microsoft changed several times without him severing all activity at the company. Saying he resigned might not give an accurate impression unless carefully qualified by the particular role he was relinquishing.

Bill Gates stepped down as chief executive officer of Microsoft in January 2000. He remained as chairman and created the position of chief software architect. In June 2006, Gates announced that he would be transitioning from full-time work at Microsoft to part-time work.

Wikipedia

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While both step down and resign mean the same thing, step down is used as a phrasal verb to speak of someone resigning from an important position. Ray Ozzie held the position of chief software architect at Microsoft.

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To resign is to "quit." To step down is to "climb down" from a high position.

It is possible to "step down all the way," as Ray Ozzie did at Microsoft. In this regard, the two are synonymous.

On the other hand, Bill Gates initially "stepped down" from CEO to Chief Software Officer, thereby taking a lesser post, without actually quitting or "resigning." (He finally fully "resigned" several years later.)

It's also possible to resign as janitor or low level person without "stepping down," because there is no lower level to step down to.

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