Whenever a colleague leaves the company, tax accountant Jill Harris thinks some good could come of it: Either the deserving person will go on to something better, or the resigning shirker may be replaced by someone who will do more work.
Mostly, however, bad things result from departures: Either your own workload grows immediately or you feel jealous that you’re stuck here, while some lightweight is trading up.
Illustration: Jayachandran/ Mint
Still, Harris tries to make a nice going-away party, performing songs she has written for the nearly departed, such as the one she wrote for Louise to the tune of “Tonight” from West Side Story, which ended: “But soon, you’ll leave us with our issues/We’ll cry into our tissues/And never get it right/So moon shine bright, because without Louise we’ll be here...all night.”
Adds Harris: “You’re spending more time with these people than your spouse, kids or anyone else you really care about, you might as well have some fun.”
Arrivals at a new job tend to have the same feeling. Everyone is welcoming. The place is a maze. And, as sure as the forms you have to fill out, some new colleague will issue a warning about the person showing you around: “Watch out for that guy, he’s trouble.”
Departures from a company are far more revealing. You learn how easy it is for bosses to muff the trick of praising people’s value, while avoiding the message that valuable people don’t last long. You learn the upside-down economics of the workplace: that companies are willing to pay more to acquire talent than to keep it, or looking at it another way, that your own company pays and promotes you less than its rival would. And you learn to ask yourself, “What am I still doing here?”
That leads many companies to pretend someone who left the company almost never existed. Eric Johnson, who once worked for a software division of a printing company, noted that early on, there were many ceremonial farewells. By the end of his stint, departures were kept “as quiet as possible, with the attitude that if we don’t speak about it, maybe no one will notice,” he says.
Arguably worse is when a manager who fights to keep a person from leaving one day, claims it’s no big loss the next. That happened to a colleague of Walt Guarino, a brand and market research strategist. His company kept making counter-offers that his colleague declined. Once he left, one of the managers dubbed him a “fool” and “stupid”.
“She diminished his value overnight,” says Guarino. Such rationalizations, he adds, amount to “sheer madness”.
Continuing the lie, “anything that gets screwed up always gets attributed to the person who left,” notes one attorney at a financial services company. (She didn’t want to provide her name for fear of her own premature going away party.)
At her company, parties depend on whether the reasons for departure are acceptable (a spouse’s transfer, sick kids or a career change) or unacceptable (joining a competitor). In the latter case, there’s no party, unless you live it up with security while being escorted to the door. Anything short of implying “that it’s not paradise on earth at this company,” she says, doesn’t rate a party.
The colleagues left behind know the other company isn’t paradise either. They envy the departure, not the company joined. When Rick Miller was leaving a government agency, a high-ranking official spoke as if Miller had orchestrated a jailbreak. “It’s nice to see someone get out,” he told Miller.
Preventing exits, says Bruce Fern, president of employee engagement consultant Performance Connections International, is the only way to avoid the twin messages sent out when a respected employee leaves: First, there is life after this company, and, second, the departing person (especially if it’s a manager) must know something the rest of us don’t.
Gary Hauk, vice-president of a university, thinks an official acknowledgement of someone’s departure has to be made. It’s easy for those employees who will be sorely missed, awkward but necessary for those who won’t.
“If the organization tries to foster community and collegiality,” he says, “there has to be a certain degree of lying.” So, one might say, “You have challenged us to see things in a new light” even if you’re thinking “by the dim light of your dim bulb.” Or you might say, “You have helped us develop new strengths” even though what first springs to mind is “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”
Such lying helps should the departed end up returning to base. John Hoholik, an independent consultant, once had three reports defect and return to his company within a year. He let the valued employees back in, but not all companies are smart enough to allow rehires despite the obvious positive message it sends.
“It’s stupid,” says Fern about shut-out policies. He notes that one in 10 companies doesn’t allow employees to return. And in an additional 20%, management criticizes the departed, which remaining employees don’t buy, he says. “The one thing the employees will think is, ‘What are they going to say about me when I leave?’”
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