A few weeks ago, a colleague left our company to start a new job. It was a bittersweet ending–I was both happy for her and sorry to lose a Slack chat buddy. As much as I’ll miss my colleague–we’ll call her ‘Andi’–I’m grateful for the care she took when she prepared to leave the company.
In an in-person office, there are often clues that someone is leaving their job. At the very least, someone may escort the employee to the door, box of personal items in hand. Under happier circumstances, you might attend a goodbye lunch, or sit in the person’s cubicle at the end of the day, reminiscing about old times.
In the remote space, there are no incidental visual cues. You may not notice that someone has left until you send an email or chat message and it bounces back.
This can be unsettling for both the people who leave and the people who stay. If you’re the one leaving and no one says anything, is it because everyone secretly hates you? As the colleague left behind, you may also have questions. Did your coworker get fired? Are you next? And who is your new point of contact?
Whether you’re the one leaving or the one sticking around, it’s important to build in a sense of closure.
When You’re the One Leaving
Andi did a great job of preparing her team for her departure. After telling her manager, she made several video calls to break the news to her closest coworkers. Other folks received an instant message or an email from her. And on her last day, she sent a general email wishing us all a fond farewell.
The approach you take will be dictated by the circumstances of your departure. It’s obviously easier to give closure to your colleagues if leaving is your idea. If your workplace and coworkers are hostile, you may decide that they don’t deserve a fond farewell.
Take a moment to think about the people you know in your company before writing them all off. The beauty of the remote workforce is that you can choose to email the one or two folks that might matter to you, and ignore the rest.
Your remote setting gives you total control over how much interaction you have with your soon-to-be former coworkers. If you want (or wouldn’t mind) answering questions about why you’re leaving or what you’re doing next, set up video calls. If you don’t want to get into ANY of the details, send an email that briefly informs people that you’re leaving, and then details who the new point person will be for your tasks.
Instant message is that half step between these two extremes. You can answer questions while filtering out some of the emotional intensity you or the other person might feel. Be aware that most company-owned instant messaging apps, channels, and software are not private. You might not care about burning bridges, but your coworker might not feel the same way.
Consider whether or not you want to keep in contact with your ex-colleagues. In the age of social media, leaving a job no longer means losing track of people you care about. Think about all of the social networks you are on, and weigh the level of professional vs personal information you share on those networks. Are you comfortable with your ex-colleagues seeing what you post? If so, you might want to include your social media handles in your targeted farewell emails.
When Your Colleague is Leaving
It can be all too easy to let your colleague leave without making a point of saying goodbye. You may be uncertain if someone chose to give notice, or if someone else made the decision for them. If your colleague is being laid off, you may think that it’s better to give the person some space.
Your coworker might not want to talk to you or anyone else. There is a difference, though, between making someone talk to you, and telling someone that you’ll miss them. Most of us would want to know that our coworkers would miss us if we left. This is especially true if we were laid off or fired. Sending an email that simply says ‘I heard you’re leaving and I’m sorry to see you go. I wish you nothing but the best,’ takes very little time to write, but might give someone a boost during a tough time.
If you don’t know the departing colleague well, that email will likely be all you do to say goodbye. If you’ve worked with this person on a regular basis, you might want to suggest that you’re willing to meet with the person over video. Adding ‘I’ll understand if you don’t have any time to talk, but my (video/IM) door is open at any time before you leave’ to your email is a tactful way to suggest a meeting without putting the person in an awkward position. As an aside, don’t add this to your email unless you’re actually willing to meet.
It can be tricky to figure out if you should offer to continue the relationship over social media. No one wants to make the first move, only to find out that the other party isn’t that interested in you. Remember, though, that the person is leaving the company. If you guess wrong (and they don’t want to stay in touch) it isn’t as if you’ll have to see them every day.
If the person is worth the possibility of a little momentary embarrassment, saying something like ‘I’m not sure if you’re on social media, but here is my social media handle in case you are’ puts the onus on them to follow up.
When to Consider Throwing a Goodbye Event
The person leaving is your direct report. Unless the person is leaving due to performance issues, holding some sort of goodbye event is a classy thing to do. Perhaps you’re upset with the person for leaving. Your reaction to your employee’s departure will send a message to the rest of the team. Do you want your team to think that you the sort of leader who will prevent people from growing in their career? Do you like getting more than two weeks’ notice? The rest of your team will note your reaction and plan accordingly.
Perhaps your company forced you to lay someone off. You may have agonized over deciding who had to leave. You may be dealing with feelings of guilt and remorse. Don’t let your feelings get in the way of doing the right thing for your team. They need your help navigating through this tough situation. This is especially true if you’ve done a good job fostering a sense of camaraderie. Help your people to say goodbye.
There are situations where it isn’t appropriate to hold a goodbye party. In such cases, it may be appropriate to acknowledge your direct report at the last team meeting. Take the employee’s state of mind into account. If the person is completely opposed to attending an event, or acting hostile, then skip it.
If your departing employee is willing to attend an event, there are ways to keep things from getting too awkward. Consider reaching out to the person ahead of time to see if they want to say anything to the team. They may not want to. Reach out to the rest of your direct reports and see if they want to say a few words.
If nothing else, you should prepare your own comments. Acknowledge the length of the person’s employment, mention anything you appreciate about the person’s work, and wish them well. If no one wishes to talk, then end the meeting early. In any case, end the meeting when the conversation begins to lag. Goodbyes can be tough, but keeping them brief can prevent them from becoming painful.
The person is leaving for a happy reason, and no one else is throwing a party. Some people are terrible at saying goodbye. I’ve worked at companies where people act as if giving your two weeks’ notice is admitting to an infidelity. Perhaps this attitude made more sense when people were given a job for life. It’s hypocritical if the company has ever laid someone off. Your job is not your spouse. It’s okay to leave if you find something better.
Before you set off to plan your rogue goodbye party, ask around to see if anyone else is already doing so. This is also a good time to find out if your colleague has friends in other departments who might want to come. Put a video meeting on the calendar, and tell people they can come and go at will. Try to find some outgoing person to help you keep the conversational ball rolling. It might make sense to ask a few people to come prepared to tell their favorite story about the person who’s leaving.
Whether you’re leaving your company or your coworker is leaving, it’s important to say goodbye. Doing so can help you and those around you to work through difficult feelings and find closure. It may feel awkward in the moment, but taking the time to say goodbye will help you honor your past and clean your slate for the next phase in your professional life.