Telling them off (or not) on your way out the door: the departure email

As millions are losing their jobs, there is no end of discussion about how to leave and how to survive.

At, author Megan Hustad commented on "the strange psychology of the workplace departure e-mail," questioning the implications of the conventional advice: "just be positive."

I tend to think that it is not such "strange psychology" and that there is more than just a pearl of wisdom in the conventional advice.

In the words of author Hustad, "the parting note that offers nothing but affirmation to (now-former) employer and employees seems ill suited to 2009—and more bloodless than it needs to be. Have we collectively grown so skittish that even those with legitimate grievances won't give voice to their dissatisfaction?"

Her point was that perhaps we have gone too far in maintaining workplace pleasantry and propriety. Perhaps the forced smile and the artificial sweetness is not a good substitute for genuine human emotion. That is what she meant by the "strange psychology," the idea that we always have to be polite, even when departing.

In fact there is research indicating that with respect to employee stress and customer satisfaction, there is a downside to employers' demands that staff keep remain friendly and cheerful, even when they are not feeling it. It takes a toll on workers, and customers know when the emotion is not genuine. Not everyone who walks into a store, office or a restaurant wants to be greeted like a long lost friend. Among co-workers, the person who is always having a great day can be a bit scary - you never know what they are really thinking.

But if you are the person who's on the way out the door with pink slip in hand, you really should think twice about telling everybody what you really think, especially in writing. Perhaps you're angry, or hurt or resentful. Or maybe you're ready to laugh it off or maybe you want to wax philosophical about your fate. Maybe you want to do it like an Oscar award speech, thanking everybody and their dog. If that's the case, don't hit the send button.

Consider this simply as a practical matter. The people who remain behind could be the ones who help you find your next job. They may hear of a new job, or they may come across information that helps you in your job search. You do indeed want them to know how to contact you, but you don't want to leave any impressions that might cause them to hesitate before contacting you.

You also want to make certain that you don't do anything that might cause anyone to question your judgment. Some of those you work with now might soon be in new jobs themselves. They might be starting their own business and looking to hire, or they might be end up in a position where they can recruit or hire others in your field. The way you leave this job may be instrumental in whether you land the next one.

Here are some things to consider:

If you leave angry, you could be the one who reminds them that they hate their job just as much as you did. That increases the burden they carry as they continue. No reason you should remind them. And if they like their job, they're going to think there was something wrong with you.

If you leave sad and dejected, you could be contributing to the common sense of "survivor guilt" that is often felt by those who are spared the knife. If you leave on any type of sour note, some of those who might have felt guilty are going to think to themselves, "yeah, that's a guy who really did deserve to go."

If you leave completely upbeat and positive, thanking everyone you can think of, some of them are bound to think about how you treated them while you were there. Maybe you weren't always so nice. And some will know that you are in a time of hardship and that your expressions of gratitude are not genuine and truly heartfelt. They know you are disappointed and that you didn't just win an Oscar.

You could be philosophical, penning a note of the type that author Hustad described as suitable, a note expressing "existential resignation." The problem is that you don't know how people will react. When you say goodbye, you are speaking to an audience that is scared, scared that they might be next. You don't want to suggest to them that they should be resigned to their fate, or that they shouldn't feel hurt and sad if it happens to them. From you, they don't want to hear that there is nothing to fear.

You also don't want to say this is all just part of the journey of life and that you are looking forward to what ever happens next. That suggests that you aren't planning and seriously focused on finding a new opportunity and your next job. It suggests that maybe you might end up on a beach in the tropics, or wherever else the winds might blow you.

Don't try to be funny or humorous. There is nothing funny about being laid off.

So how should you leave?
My advice is that you leave graciously and effectively, with a seriousness of purpose. Positive is good, but it involves more than "just be positive."

As to how you should do it, I consulted a career adviser, Cici Mattiuzzi, who is now in the process of publishing (on the web) her second text book: The Serious Job Seeker. This is her advice:

  • Don't wait until the termination notice arrives to start planning your goodbye. Do it now! When you get the notice, it may be too late. Your email account and your contact list may be terminated immediately. So, make sure you have all your contacts and that you have an email address that you will be using for professional purposes (like at gmail).
  • Don't send anyone any notes until you've taken some time to get some exercise and fresh air and think about what you are going to say. Next week is soon enough.
  • Let people know that you view this as an opportunity to explore your options, consider new directions or to gain some education, training or experience that you have long considered.
  • If you have some enterprise or activity already lined up, let them know how you will be actively engaged and involved. Let them know if you have a side business or project that you will be focusing on (this is also an advertising opportunity). If you know what your next career objective is, tell them. Let them know what you are looking for.
  • Let them know that you would appreciate hearing from them, especially if they have any ideas or suggestions, or if they hear of any opportunities. Ask them to keep you informed if their contact information should change. Above all else, make certain that they know how to contact you by email, and through LinkedIn or some other location on the web where they can easily access your resume.
The departure email is not where you want to share your feelings or look back on the past. It's OK to say that it was a pleasure working with them, that you appreciate their support and/or friendship, and to express "best wishes." But it is not a time to be maudlin or sentimental. By way of your attitude, you want to let them know that you have passed The Serious Job Seeker IQ Test.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.