The Season of Leaving

Employee departures can range from awesome to awkward. Sam Minner discusses how best to handle them, and who should decide how the departing are feted.

July 17, 2015

Summer is the season of leaving. Colleagues retire or depart for other positions, and those leaving as well as those remaining are faced with a tricky issue -- how to handle the farewell.

Farewells are on a continuum, ranging from large and expensive blowouts to the nonfarewell event where the person leaves without saying good-bye at all. In my experience, there are at least four types of farewells: the Show Me the Love version, the Co-Opted type, the Nonfarewell, and the Perfunctory Farewell. Here’s my take on each type.

The Show Me the Love … and Show Me Some More Farewell

In some cases, the individual leaving an institution desires, sometimes desperately so, a major farewell event, complete with testimonials to her many accomplishments. Phrases like “we cannot replace you,” “you changed this place for the better” and “you had an incredible run here,” etc. are common at these events and are sometimes -- but not always -- true. A few people I’ve known over the years actually helped write their own farewell scripts and even contributed to elaborate Powerpoint presentations noting their many achievements.

There really isn’t anything wrong with this kind of thing, I guess, but my experience suggests that during this version of a farewell, at least some of the accomplishments are met with raised eyebrows by attendees followed by questions like, “Heh, didn’t Bob actually write that grant?” or “I guess I didn’t realize that she was the lead on our accreditation report. I thought Donna did that.”

The Co-Opted Farewell

A good number of farewells are co-opted. For whatever reason, the person leaving simply does not want any type of farewell event whatsoever, but others do and they plan the event and sometimes even attempt to surprise the departing colleague.

If people co-opt the event and the unwilling honoree shows up at the right place and the right time, they’re stuck. If you find yourself in that position, however, it is only right and proper to allow the event to unfold, have a good time (or at least behave as if you are having a good time and make it as believable as possible), and sincerely thank the perpetrators for going to the effort. In most cases, their motivations are good, although I have known a few colleagues who looked for any excuse to consume shrimp and have a drink or two, particularly if there is an open bar.

My personal co-opted farewell occurred a few years ago when I was leaving an institution. I really wanted no farewell whatsoever -- I am usually not very comfortable at those events and in that case, I did everything possible to discourage friends and colleagues from moving forward, but a few colleagues decided to surprise me with quite an extravagant event anyway. Virtually every faculty and staff member attended. Very large numbers of crustaceans met their doom and domestic beer flowed freely. At one point, I found myself seated next to a faculty member I barely knew, although we had worked in the same building for nearly a decade. He was not exactly an outgoing person. Most of our interactions consisted of slight nods when we met in the parking lot or a quiet “good morning” if he was feeling particularly upbeat that day. At any rate, he expressed gratitude that the term had come to an end and how much he was looking forward to a quiet summer.

He also mentioned that previous deans had thrown end-of-year parties all the time and thought it was “good form” that the new dean was following that tradition. The guy thought my co-opted farewell was an end-of-term party! He didn't even know I was leaving.

The Nonfarewell

My personal favorite is the Nonfarewell event. You go in to work on your last day, you do the best you can on that day just as you have done over the previous years and you depart at the end of the day. The next morning, keys, whatever technology you were provided, your parking pass and perhaps your ID are on the desk for your boss to find and ponder. Like the lead in the quintessential American Western film, you simply ride off into the sunset. There are no dramatic good-byes. No claims, forced or otherwise, that “we’ll miss you so much,” because after all, not everyone is missed by everyone else. There is no pressure for anyone to attend the event, since there is no event.

The Perfunctory Farewell

The saddest farewell, in my experience, is the perfunctory farewell. Perhaps the person leaving really prefers the Nonfarewell, but others in the organization simply insist that something is done. At the very least … something perfunctory. One of my colleagues once asserted that it would simply be “bad form” if we did nothing and permitted the individual leaving the university to select the Nonfarewell option. This seemed strange to me, since the individual had a pretty difficult time at the institution, was leaving under less than positive circumstances and had clearly informed everyone that he preferred no event whatsoever. “Shouldn’t we allow him that option?” I questioned.

Well, the response was clear -- no. So, we held the Perfunctory Farewell. A few colleagues showed up on a Friday afternoon to sip punch and eat cookies. The dean made a few halfhearted comments about the contributions the person had made and wished him well in his next endeavor. Then the few folks at the event shook the fellow’s hand and everyone disbanded. The entire event lasted perhaps 15 minutes.

When it comes to farewells, legitimate questions are: Who are they intended to accommodate? Who gets to decide what version of farewell is selected? Is the person leaving somehow obligated to acquiesce to whatever form of farewell typically done at a particular institution? These questions are more complex than one might imagine, and I’ve certainly seen quite a number of challenges sorting them all out.

Those wanting a Show Me the Love type of event sometimes feel that the farewell was perhaps not quite grand enough. I once attended one of these events where the person leaving was so bothered that not quite enough love was demonstrated that he wound up leaving under a cloud. That was unfortunate, since he really had a great career at the school. Co-Opted Farewells can work out all right, but not always. In one case, a person who was quite clear that he wanted no event whatsoever found out about the “surprise” event and simply did not attend. Not everyone thought that was amusing. Nonfarewells can be misinterpreted. Was the person unhappy? Mad? Colleagues wanting to say good-bye are sometimes upset if there is no closure. And Perfunctory Farewells can sometimes be quite painful if the person leaving and those attending the event understand that it really is only perfunctory.

So, what to do? How should farewells be handled? As one who has left a few institutions as well as one who has attended all kinds of farewells, I think the person leaving should get to decide. Simply ask the colleague what she prefers, and then do everything possible to plan the event accordingly. If someone wants to feel the love, try to do that. If someone asserts they do not care one way or the other, the Co-Opted Farewell is fair game. If you are the one leaving and the event is co-opted, feign surprise even if you knew all about it. If someone chooses the Nonfarewell, that’s fine, too. Do not assume the departing colleague is upset about anything or is acting in a disrespectful manner. Maybe the individual is just uncomfortable at those events. And if you wind up at a perfunctory event, sincerely thank the person for some specific positive thing they contributed to, firmly shake their hand and wish them well.

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Sam Minner is president of New Mexico Highlands University. He has never desired a Show Me the Love Farewell, departed one institution after an embarrassing but well-intentioned Co-Opted Farewell, participated in two Nonfarewells, and has attended numerous Perfunctory Farewell events.


Sam Minner

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