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We Don’t Talk About Bruno: Acknowledging Former Employees

There can be a catharsis when you quit your job. Being able to share that you are not fulfilled where you are working or that this off-center company is not for you is a release of stress and anxiety. It is not easy to do, but the burden-lifting is energizing for far too many. We’ve stayed in organizations that are not progressing or are not recognizing talent. To be in that kind of environment for a long period of time takes a bit of you. So when you resign, it is huge. In Burn After Reading, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) resigns from his CIA role with some colorful language. He is bound up with the angst that pouring your spirit and efforts into unappreciated work will bring. After being advised that he is being demoted, Cox quits his job, takes a few jabs at those in the room and storms out, in a very Malkovich sort of way. It’s a memorable exit.

To be sure, not all resignations are quite so dramatic.

And if that’s true, why don’t we talk about those who’ve departed? Almost immediately, a former colleague becomes He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. That employee was a part of the work – the successes, the failures, the innovations, the recalibrations, all of it. Managers and leaders go so far as to refuse to acknowledge that person’s existence. Why must we pretend that person was not there?

Ego is at the heart of the matter. There is something disloyal and dishonorable to many managers about someone leaving. Many of those who resign have their reputations tarnished, sometimes within a day of the departure. Performance shortfalls, bad decisions and overinflated mistakes are shared with more people than should ever be done, if at all. Someone who had been an asset becomes the “worst employee we’ve ever had.” Those responses are usually a clear sign of a bruised ego.

We ought to help managers expect separation at some point and to have walked through the right kinds of responses to it. This is not to say that all resignations are from great staff; there are times it’s a blessing! But, more times than not, the issue is more about dealing with a qualified contributor leaving than it is a poor performer moving on. How have you helped managers prepare for someone leaving? Left to its own devices, the ego will jump in as the knee-jerk response.

It is healthy to refer to people who’ve contributed in the past. It is not necessary to pretend that they did not exist. Many of those former employees have helped to get the company where it is so their contribution can still be recognized. And it should not be done so begrudgingly.

People have moved on from your organization for a variety of reasons – better pay, an advanced role, geographic needs, family considerations. Those reasons are not all bad. In the under 50-employee organization I am leading, there are not management roles available for everyone. If someone has their heart set on being a manager, they may move on. I respect that and understand that there is an opportunity available to them elsewhere that I do not have today. I don’t have to take it personally and neither do you.

Lastly, don’t think your current staff aren’t paying attention as to how you are treating former employees. They know what you are likely to say about them should they leave. You are not coy; you have been a character assassin. Those employees who remain often distance themselves from you as a result of this behavior. You don’t need to put up walls. Take them down through acknowledgement of current and past contribution.

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