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It’s that time of year—hurtling toward the end of a fiscal year and the beginning of a new one—when current contracts are renewed or not and contracts are issued for new employees. Some employees are promoted and some demoted. Some employment relationships end through retirement, resignation or termination.

Announcements of employees’ comings and goings range in tone and tenor with vague phrases that make one wonder why the individual left the institution or why the new employee left their previous institution. Musing often leads to speculation and campus gossip. It’s easy to think the worst about a person, but it is likely more straightforward or more complex than it appears. Can anything be gleaned from the announcements? Yes and no. Here are three categories of exits, a few phrases used and what they may mean; many nuances exist.

Category 1: Nothing to See Here

“Retired.” Often used to indicate the departure of a long-serving employee or someone at the end of their professional career and of a certain age (60-plus), this word typically signals a voluntary departure. In unfortunate circumstances, it can mean a loss of capacity and ability resulting in self-recognition or in gentle but pointed persuasive conversation that it is time to leave the world of professional work. Retirement announcements are customarily coupled with celebrations of gratitude for service, a summary of accomplishments and well-wishes for happiness and fulfillment in the later phases of life. An announcement of emeritus status indicates the individual served honorably and is afforded certain privileges after employment ceases.

“Moving on to …” or “taking on a new role as …” This person has greater aspirations or seeks a better fit for their disposition, skills and life goals. The impetus for change finds grounding in the hopes and dreams for growth, greater fulfillment and professional or personal prosperity.

“Personal reasons.” This phrase often means the individual departed because of health concerns, tragedy or crisis—either their own or a family member’s. By law, institutions are prohibited from discussing or disclosing an employee’s health status. It’s best to think of their departure as exactly as described—personal.

“More time with family” or “time to focus on family.” These phrases are very similar to “personal reasons” but may indicate the person wants to recalibrate their priorities in life. At the same time, the terms suggest a values-based decision; the person or someone in their family may be in crisis. In another scenario, the employee may be devoting so much time to their job that their family is fed up with their absence at home. Could the employee be facing an ultimatum from loved ones? Perhaps. Alternatively, the phrase might communicate, “I can’t take it anymore. Life is too short. This job sucks. I hate my colleagues. I need time to think about what I want in life.”

With all phrases, the reasons for departure were personal, and most often, it was their choice (perhaps with some pressure from others). Sometimes it is a joyous decision; other times, it is difficult and painful. Consider the person with compassion, afford them the milk of human kindness and respect them for the courage it took them to decide.

Category 2: Saving Face

Types of triggering events:

  • Health and wellness of the employee
  • Employee’s inability to meet expectations and achieve goals
  • Something happened, someone had to take the blame and it was this poor soul (sometimes by no fault of their own)
  • Unresolved conflict between supervisor and employee, employee and direct reports, or employee and constituents
  • Breaches in judgment, character or ethical norms
  • The employee accused the institution, supervisor or other individual(s) of unlawfulness and the institution does not want the issue made public
  • Public outcry over perceived or actual unlawful actions or behaviors
  • Accusations or formal charges of unlawfulness or conviction in a court of law
  • Threatened or formal vote of no confidence

“Stepped down,” “stepping away” or “resigned.” These phrases often indicate questioning, controversy or conflict surrounding an employee’s actions, inactions, words or behaviors. Leaving the position may have been triggered by an employee’s self-reflection and decision, supervisor and employee working in concert, or a supervisor giving the employee a choice between resigning or termination. Whoever made the decision, it was determined the situation was untenable and so negatively impacted the employee’s ability to successfully perform their duties that a change in status was necessary.

“Focus on other pursuits.” This phrase is typically used when announcing the departure of an employee who does not have faculty rank and is not tenured but is leaving without another job. If “other pursuits” is followed by more specific examples like a book deal, dreams to walk across America or working with people experiencing poverty abroad, then it was most likely their choice to leave.

“Returning to the faculty,” “exercising their right to return to the faculty” or “stepping back.” These phrases are used for administrators with faculty status and tenure who are leaving their current position but aren’t leaving the institution. Essentially, they’re returning to their previous position as a professor and will be teaching again. It’s typically a demotion.

In many cases, the phrases in this category indicate a relatively amicable, humanistic departure that was negotiated behind the scenes with lawyers and legal documents outlining severance and binding agreements regarding confidentiality, nondisparagement and other considerations. However, most people will never know what happened due to the legally binding agreements.

Maybe the departing employee did something wrong, but don’t always bet on it. It could be the opposite—the institution and supervisors could have done something wrong. Here are some reasons for an employee’s departure that don’t involve them doing anything that would have resulted in termination.

The employee may have:

  • Reported incidents they believed were unethical or illegal and the institution didn’t want the accusations heard/known by the public
  • Pushed back on illegal treatment (such as discrimination) they received from their employer and the institution doesn’t want to be sued
  • Been blamed for someone else’s wrongdoing, incompetence or inaction (i.e., they are serving as a fall guy) and/or
  • Been caught in a political firestorm with someone with power, such as the president, cabinet members, board members or donors.

Category 3: The Nuclear Option

“No longer with the institution.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but this phrase means some shit went down. The employee may have been fired for doing something wrong (illegal, a violation of policy, etc.), the employee was retaliated against after making complaints and fired (yes, it does happen even though it’s illegal), or the employee quit in spectacular fashion after an epic fight where they accused the institution of wrongdoing. Lawyers may have been involved, but no amicable separation agreement was reached.

The internet might reveal a filed lawsuit or a Division of Human Rights complaint if the last two reasons were involved. Expect a battle of wills that may take years. Neither side will talk about details publicly because of litigation. However, details about federal complaints can be read online via Pacermonitor, Law360, Casetext and other websites. Outcomes of state divisions of human rights and the EEOC complaints can also be read online. Remember, the departing employee may not be hiding something; they may be the hero confronting corruption.

Final words: be careful about gossip—you don’t know what you don’t know. There are two sides to any story.

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