Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Art of Leaving

From being a teenager onwards my father has delighted in teasing me with the following rhyme (written by Ogden Nash in the 1930s, when women wearing trousers were frowned upon): 
Sure, deck your lower limbs in pants;

Yours are the limbs, my sweeting.
You look divine as you advance –
Have you seen yourself retreating?

This is neither a post about sartorial elegance nor a debate as to whether the female figure suits a skirt better than britches, instead it is a few thoughts on “retreating” – leaving a job and saying goodbye.

The Antarctic survivors on Elephant Island waving farewell
to Shackleton and the James Caird crew, April 24 1916

During my career I have encountered many “retreats”, some simple resignations because an employee has an attractive offer that will forward their career or quality of life, others forced departures due to sickness, personal circumstances, inappropriate conduct or business need. I must confess to finding the latter, which are predominantly accomplished through redundancies, particularly challenging, as they impact on people’s lives and yet the exit decisions are made by the business according to organisationally defined criteria, often with little thought to the impact that verdicts will have on the individuals and their families. No matter how much you stress that the exits are not a reflection on those who are impacted (both the people leaving and those left behind), but are based on an assessment of the roles they fulfil, it is hard for those selected (unless they have opted for voluntary redundancy) not to feel their forced departure on a very personal level.  I see one of business leaders’ and HR’s primary roles as ensuring that leavers, as well as joiners, have as good an experience as possible.

I discovered yesterday that I have been included in a book, How To Stand Out, by Dr. Rob Yeung, the leading UK psychologist, author and orator – he and I have known each other for over a decade, having worked together and I hold him and his work in high regard. Nearly a year ago, we had an interesting discussion about careers, values and impact; I thought what I had said were just words lost in the breeze at the end of the evening, but, in addition to acknowledging my desire to continuously learn and grow, he picked up on my determination to always treat people with respect and understanding, especially during times of change and transition. In the book he has used some examples from my past to illustrate how businesses can achieve the best outcomes both for themselves and exiting employees.  In 2008/9 my team and I went out of our way to secure new roles for people who were being made redundant, when we had to lay off 20% of the workforce. We flew HR directors and recruiters in from overseas locations where there were opportunities, to enable them to select their new hires from our excellent staff. All parties were happy with the outcome. In my opinion, the world would be a better place if more people considered the impact they have on those around them and made an effort to soften the blow, so that those leaving and those left behind can get on with life without undue anxiety. Seven years later I am still in contact with (and friends with) many of the people who set out on new paths at that time. Some have even thanked me for the opportunity it presented that has changed their lives for the better and commented on the consideration I showed during tough times – even now their comments are a truly humbling experience.

The need for respect works both ways – when a person chooses to leave their employer, the manner in which they resign and then conduct themselves in the lead up to and following their departure is important.  In reality, few people wish to go leaving a lasting bad taste in the mouth of their former boss and colleagues (and this is not just because they are concerned at getting a bad reference); who knows what the future will hold? I have on more than one occasion been involved in an acquisition where there are employees on the other side who find themselves becoming colleagues again with people they thought they had said “goodbye” to. So, my advice is be careful what you say in your resignation letter – although, there are times when you have a duty to inform the company as to what is causing your departure, especially if ethics or workplace issues are involved. If there are things that can be done to make a better environment then you have a duty to explain, as the information should be used to improve the workplace for others after you have gone. 

One of the most popular resignation themed posts on Forbes is a very frank explanation by a recruiter as to why she felt compelled to leave. It is clear from follow up interviews with her that she has no regrets at being so honest and that her letter has acted as inspiration for others. However, a resignation should not simply be an opportunity for revenge and bad-mouthing. 

Despite the end of the Job-for-life there is a duty of trust and care that rests on both an employee and their employer. Individuals are expected to work to the best of their ability whilst employed, in exchange for a salary and benefits, the chance to develop and a suitable place to work; in return an employer should respect those who toil for the benefit of the business. Managers and leaders should do their best to treat staff with courtesy – communicating in an honest and open manner, paying a fair wage and treating employees with trust and appreciation.

Advice to those about to leave: 
  • tell your boss first, before you speak with others– your manager/supervisor should never find out via someone else that you are planning to go;
  • discuss the timing of your departure and, if needs be, agree to stay until a certain matter is concluded or goal achieved;
  • once the decision is made and public, refrain from talking overmuch about your new opportunity;
  • stay focused on what needs to be done to ensure a professional departure; remain considerate to others especially as some of them may be having to take on some of your tasks and responsibilities;
  • offer to help and leave detailed notes or provide a personal handover for those who will have to pick up where you will leave off;
  • be appreciative - use the opportunity of your departure to thank people and provide feedback  to them (positive as well as constructive) – this may be your most important legacy; and
  • contemplate what went well and what you could have done better in your old role - were there things you loved or are particularly pleased to have done? Are there situations, types of people or aspects of your job that you should avoid in the future? Learn from your mistakes and figure out how to improve on your triumphs, so that you can develop your skills and be even better in your next role.

The best departures are those where you appreciate that the time is right to go but retain the memories and an appreciation of the benefits and the good things you gained from the time with your employer and colleagues.. In the words of the Pulitzer Prize winner, Ellen Goodman:

There’s a trick to the Graceful Exit. It begins with the vision to recognise when a job, a life stage, a relationship is over – and to let go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its value.

And finally, be happy and celebrate the good times (both those that you have enjoyed with your employer and those yet to come). Fireworks may be excessive but farewell drinks are the norm…

Washington's Farewell by Alonzo Chappel, 1866
So to end where I started, and close with a “retreat”, namely a piece of military history and pageantry that would provide a spectacular finale to the end of anyone’s employment – Beating Retreat. This ceremony was originally called the “watch setting” and occurred at sunset by the firing of a single round from the evening gun. It has its origins in the early days of chivalry, when it was customary to end the day’s fighting by signalling to soldiers to return to camp and to commence the mounting of the guard for the night. In 1690 James II of England ordered the use of drums to beat an order for troops to retreat, this was expanded in 1694, by William III, who proposed that regimental drummers respond to the initial notification. Beating Retreat is now one of the most spectacular military ceremonies in many countries around the world. So I shall sign off with pomp, ceremony and a grand climax of fireworks. Farewell.