Graceful Departures

departing a company

I’ve always found it puzzling, how so many companies seem to operate on the belief that anyone who leaves the company must be a traitor of some sort.

Take the definition of “good leaver” versus “bad leaver”. The very first result on Google for “good bad leaver” produced the following golden nugget:

> Good leaver will usually mean leaving employment on grounds of death or disability.

The second result is not that far off, though slightly broader. A good leaver either:

  1. dies, or
  2. becomes incapacitated through physical or mental illness; or
  3. is made redundant; or
  4. voluntarily retires from employment after a pre-agreed period of time;

The article continues:

> Having defined what constitutes a Good leaver it is often the case that any other event of departure from the company is a Bad Leaver event…

This may seem extreme, but from what I’ve seen it is representative of the position most companies take on this matter. The default position is that you’re a bad leaver. If you have extenuating circumstances (such as having died on the job), then you’re a good leaver. Sometimes it gets even more extreme: I’ve recently heard that one of our prominent competitors went through a phase of taking people to court for leaving.

Asymmetric oaths

What I find especially puzzling about this is the underlying assumption: that every employee is beholden for life to the company, that they owe some sort of never-ending loyalty to the corporate organism, and that if they ever renege on that solemn oath, they are essentially a traitor and should be punished in some way.

This is particularly bizarre considering that most companies these days offer no such loyalty in return. A prominent idea in the startup world is that you should “hire slow and fire fast”. And most large companies go through regular rounds of culling, firing double-digit percentages of their workforce at the stroke of a pen. And they expect loyalty in return for this? Perhaps back in the days when most people worked at one company their entire life, it made sense to look askance at anyone who left before retirement. But in today’s world, it should be pretty obvious to anyone running any sort of company that almost every single one of the people who work for you right now will quit some day, and that day is probably less than a couple of years away.

Surely it’s time we found a more positive way to handle this business of people leaving?

A better default position

GrantTree’s position is deliberately the opposite of most companies’. We accept that every person who joins us is joining us for a limited time. We hope their time here will be fun and fulfilling and productive, that it will help them on their journey of personal growth, and that they’ll remain on good terms and even friends with their former colleagues and, more broadly, with the company (insofar as you can be “friends” with a company). So by default, everyone is a good leaver.

The only exception to that is if someone, while leaving, is deliberately attempting to cause harm to the company. Determining whether that’s the case is not left to one person, either – there is a process involving randomly selected people in the company who, when presented with the facts of the matter, have to agree that the person in question is a bad leaver.

That’s on the practical side. On the emotional side, though, we accept that people will leave, and don’t get upset at them for choosing to do so. In fact, in 121s and through our self-assessed pay process, we encourage people to consider their market value and whether they might be better off elsewhere. Why would we want to employ people who aren’t happy to work here? They would be very unlikely to deliver the kind of client service and quality work that we want. This is diametrically opposite to the way most companies are paranoid about people looking for jobs elsewhere.

It is sad when people leave. Our shared journey comes to an end. Sometimes it continues in another form, but in my experience people who leave, leave for good. And that’s ok. There are so many things to do in the world, I don’t expect the kind of fierce, lively people we work with to be satisfied with just one workplace forever, especially when GrantTree is their first or second employer. So let’s make sure we make the most of the time we do have together.

Gracefully handling people’s departure means, in my opinion:

  • Accepting that everyone will leave at some point;
  • Welcoming people in that choice, and even suggesting that choice to them if they can’t find work that helps them grow and develop, or if it seems like the best choice for them in their circumstances;
  • Actively supporting them in that part of their lifecycle;
  • Helping them with finding another job if they’re not happy and giving them more time and flexibility in that period so they can find the right next job;
  • Inviting alumni  to company events.

What do we get in exchange for that? Well, first of all, we don’t need to get something in exchange to do it. We do it because it’s the right thing to do when faced with the reality of what employment is, and because the common alternative of treating all leavers as if they were traitors is unpalatable. But we do get something in return: that loyalty, that other companies assume without considering whether they’re worthy of it.

At GrantTree, most people announce their departure with many months of notice, giving us ample time to figure out how to cover their work. Most stay in touch and still turn up at company events from time to time, or even come and hang out in the office when they’re nearby. Some people even change their mind about leaving, after announcing that they’re planning to go. All this is possible only because we don’t stigmatise leaving.

On the other side of the mirror

Most of the mishandling of people’s departures happens on the company’s’ side, but not all of it. I want to also say a couple of words to the leavers themselves, because there is also a graceful way to do it and a less graceful way to do it.

Nobody ever leaves a job or company because they’re just so happy with it. There’s usually some kernel of fundamental dissatisfaction, and from that kernel, there grows a broader perspective that eventually ends the love affair between the person and the company. And much like in other love affairs, when we fall out of love, we start to see all the problems with the other person, which we were previously blind to.

As we prepare to leave, the warts and blemishes all become apparent. To validate our decision to leave, we often start (consciously or subconsciously) to predict that doom will follow our departure, as if we were the one person that was holding this ship together. Having fallen out of love, we now see a myriad of ‘totally objective’ reasons why no one should ever be in love with this company because, surely, we wouldn’t be making the choice to leave unless we were right.

Unlike most love affairs, though, in this case, there are (often many) other people involved. Think of them as the kids in a divorce. We may suddenly find our significant other unbearable to be around, but from a place of maturity, we can perhaps realise that that’s just our perspective, not the whole truth, and that the kids (or the remaining employees) not only have a different perspective, but perhaps value that different perspective and don’t want to change it at the moment.

So instead of giving in to the impulse to share our disillusionment with the company we used to be passionate about, I think “leaving gracefully” means accepting that though our own perspective may be changing, it holds no more absolute truth than it did back when we were passionate about the company.

In other words, if you choose to leave a company, let your departure be like a friendly break-up, where we all agree that it’s time for our paths to diverge but remain on good terms and cherishing the times we spent together.

With a bit of luck, the company you’re leaving will have the same graceful attitude, and you can look back on your time with them as a happy chapter instead of a tale of attrition.

And on this note, I must leave you… but don’t worry, I will write another article sooner or later.

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Daniel Tenner

AKA Swombat. Serial entrepreneur, tech geek and startup blogger, prolific HN commenter. GrantTree founder. His superpower: the ability to turn anything into a so-called “dan joke”.