I think I’m getting pretty good at leaving jobs. Not that I’m a serial job hopper. I don’t start a job, decide it’s boring, then throw in the towel at the first opportunity (although there have been times when I wished I had!) And, let’s face it, in these tough times good jobs are hard to come by so it isn’t very wise to just chuck it all in just because you don’t like the commute, or the office, or your colleagues, or think you could run things better than your boss. Having said that, I’ve definitely left jobs in the past because of poor management. No, I’m not a flaky employee. I’m a career contractor (for that, read ‘crazy person who’s decided that having control over her work-life balance is more important than getting a regular income’!) As a career contractor, I take on long or short-term contracts of work for an organisation that needs my skills and expertise for a period of time. I’ve been working this way for almost 9 years and, quite frankly, it has transformed my working life. I’ve worked for start-ups, national and international charities, community groups, global corporations, federal, state and local government departments and volunteer organisations. I’ve worked in many industries and sectors, countries and locations. I’ve worked with some amazing people (and some total nut cases), made lifelong friends, done some really interesting work (and some really dull stuff) and managed to earn a reasonable living. But, with each new contract comes the eventual reality that I will leave. I’m used to it now and usually view the ending of a contract as a new opportunity. After all, one door closes and another door opens. Sadly, many organisations don’t view the endings quite as positively as I do.
Take my last contract for example. My departure wasn’t sudden. I didn’t pick up my ancient computer and hurl it out of the window (fortunately, most modern offices don’t have windows that open – probably for just that reason). Nor did I have a blazing row with my manager, screaming obscenities over the frustrations that had been building for months. And I resisted the urge to swan out the door, Round-the-World ticket in hand, grinning like the Cheshire cat shouting ‘Sayonara suckers’. Instead, I think, I left quietly, with dignity and with my reputation intact.
I’d been with the organisation for almost 18 months, in a contract that had come to an end. Although my manager and I had discussed the prospect of renewing for another term, I’d already booked an overseas trip and planned to travel for a couple of months before looking for work again. It had been a long time since I’d had a proper holiday and it was time to treat myself to a well-earned break.
Once it became widely known that my contract was not being renewed, my colleagues would glance at me sideways in the lunch room before asking tentatively “What are you going to do now?” When I told them I was taking an extended holiday, they appeared relieved. Somehow, taking time out to travel was more palatable than not having another job to go to. When I stressed that it was my choice and a decision I’d made months ago, many confessed how they wished they could leave too. That if it wasn’t for the mortgage, the private school fees, the new car loan, the flexible working arrangements etc, etc, they, too, would be out the door. Sadly, many in the team were unhappy working there, but felt they had few other options. To be honest, I was pleased to be leaving as the atmosphere in the organisation wasn’t great but I felt sorry for my colleagues who wanted to move on, but felt trapped.
In the lead up to my final weeks, I felt like I was in a void. Work dried up. I became an assistant to my manager, dealing with her overload. A major project that I’d been working on was transferred to others, even though it was over six weeks until I was due to leave. I wasn’t told directly. I found out about it by reading the minutes of a meeting I’d been unable to attend. I was being treated like a pariah. In the end, it made little difference to me, however it did get me thinking about how organisations in general manage the exit of employees from their business.
Ending an employment contract – whether voluntarily or not – is one of the least discussed HR functions (outside of the HR Team), yet is one of the most contentious. There is no coincidence that the HR profession refer to the ceasing of an employee as ‘termination’. It implies finality. Ending. Death. And, like death, it is rarely discussed openly. Instead, it is referred to in hushed tones, in closed meeting rooms, with serious faces. Little wonder. HR professionals across the globe spend countless hours exiting recalcitrant employees from organisations. Employment lawyers make a lot of money advising employers about their responsibilities, and workers about their rights, in relation to ceasing employment. Many exits arise after protracted discussions about an employee’s performance, a misdemeanour, a breach of company policy or a redundancy. The job no longer suits the purpose of the organisation and the employee has to be ‘let go’. ‘Involuntary exits’, as they’re known the industry, consume a lot of HR’s time and energy.
At various points throughout my career, I’ve been the HR person doing all of those things. Helping a leader manage the performance of an employee who long ago lost interest in the job and most days didn’t show up at all. With no documented evidence of the leader’s attempts to manage the poor performance, we couldn’t just ‘sack him’, no matter how much the MD shouted at me. An undiagnosed mental health condition, exacerbated by the employees predilection to recreational drugs, made that ‘termination’ particularly gruelling on all parties.
On another occasion, I was asked to work with senior staff to compile a list of ‘proposed redundancies’ where the Director’s only criterion for removal of the employee was ‘because they are crap’. It took some negotiating to convince the Management Team that they needed a more robust process for determining what constitutes a redundant position.
Another time, I discovered the CEO had bypassed me, the Recruitment Team and the company’s preferred recruitment providers to advertise a Director’s vacancy with a questionable recruitment agency in a division where a Director had just been made redundant. I found out about this when the redundant employee rang me and shouted down the phone that he had just seen ‘his job’ advertised and he would see me in an Employment Tribunal. I curbed the urge to tell him to make his submission quickly as I, too, would be shortly leaving the organisation! The CEO protested that he had asked the recruiter not to promote the vacancy in the industry press. He just didn’t get it.
As HR professionals, we are usually called to arms when things go wrong. It really isn’t a surprise that we treat the departure of an employee with a mix of trepidation and regret. We fear the potential fall-out from a badly managed departure, yet wonder whether anything could have been done to prevent it happening. Were there any warning signs? Could the manager have handled the situation differently? Or was it just time for the employee to move on and we need to let them go with our best wishes. The way in which an organisation manages its departing employees often says a lot about how they treat their staff in general. The best organisations are those that see all former employees as future ambassadors and treat them as such.
As a career contractor and occasional consultant, I have left a lot of organisations. It goes with the territory, so to speak. But I always make a point of ensuring that I leave on good terms. In each new contract, I make new friends and alliances, and I remain in contact with many former colleagues years later. Some of my closest friends are people I’ve met at work. As each contract ends, I ensure a handover is done, work is finalised, projects put to bed. I contact people both within the organisation and outside of it, and ensure they know who to go to in my absence. I make a point of ensuring I depart on good terms with the people I’ve worked with – even those I don’t particularly like. Sometimes, saying goodbye can be hard and emotional. Leaving an organisation or team you’ve enjoyed working in is like saying goodbye to an old friend, even though you feel pretty sure you’ll keep in touch. In the words of the Bard “parting is such sweet sorrow”. In the case of leaving a job, parting sweetly is something I think we should all aspire to.