September 26, 2022

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What an honest leaving-do speech would sound like

4 min read

WHEN HARRY told me that he was leaving the company, one of the first things he said to me was that he didn’t like sentimental goodbyes. I have decided to take him at his word. Everything you will hear me say tonight is unvarnished and to the point, just like the man himself.

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Harry has been in the finance department for seven years. In that time he has not done anything remotely funny. I asked several people if they had anecdotes about him, and the best they could come up with is that he once accidentally changed a formula in the annual budget spreadsheet. Since the mistake was quickly spotted and fixed, it had no impact at all. I asked Charlotte, who has worked with you closely for three years, if she had anything to share. She was silent for what seemed like hours, and then said that she thinks you like walnuts. (Ah, I see you shaking your head, so that is neither funny nor true.)

No matter. We do not hire people because they have an amusing habit of getting stuck in lifts (yes, Brian, I do mean you) or promote them because they can recite pi as a party trick. It is true that a mediocre colleague who happens to have some eccentric habits (and yes, Brian, I still mean you) would have produced a much more enjoyable leaving event than this painfully stilted affair. But that should not obscure more important things. Harry has been a diligent, competent and well-liked employee. He has been a good manager. Every job he has done for us he has done well.

Not so well that he is indispensable, of course. We did offer him a raise when we found out he was planning to leave, but we opted against throwing in a sabbatical. In the end we recognised that he wanted to go and decided that we would cope just fine. There is no shame in that. Everyone is dispensable; it’s just a question of how quickly people come to that realisation. In Harry’s case, it was neither all that slow nor embarrassingly fast.

Since then, we have all been waiting for him actually to leave. Once it is known that a person is moving on from their role, everyone immediately prices it in. People with ambition start writing memos about what they would do if they had that job. Rebecca’s pitch arrived the day after we announced your departure. I can see now that you didn’t know that, and that she didn’t expect me to mention it.

Meetings quickly start to disappear from calendars. Decisions are deferred or simply taken elsewhere. It’s like the period between an election and an inauguration: there is someone in office but no one in power. By the time we get to this point, holding a glass of Prosecco and staring at you as if you are an endangered species, it’s something of a surprise to find that you still exist.

Will Harry be forgotten? Not at all, though for reasons that he may not fully grasp. This is an evening in which the person who is leaving receives presents (as well as a card from people whose names you don’t recognise but who just loved working with you). But the exchange goes both ways. The leavers have a parting gift of their own to bestow: a convenient scapegoat.

When someone dies, the convention is not to speak ill of the departed. When an employee exits a company, it’s the opposite. Things that don’t work as well as they should can be laid at the door of someone who won’t answer back. Frustrations that have been suppressed can finally be blamed on someone. When we speak of you, we will say things like “Harry had many strengths but…”, and we will persuade ourselves that you held us back a bit. This will not be true, but it will be convenient. I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you that we are grateful for this final act of service, which can last for as long as a year after someone has actually left the building.

After that, memories tend to fade. I wish I could promise you that you are part of company folklore, or that your role in banning plastic straws from the office will reverberate through the ages. Instead, the only guarantee I can give is that no one here will ever read your exit-interview notes.

This may all seem a little sad. You have spent many years at the company, and yet will probably leave comparatively little trace. But you should still feel pride in your time here. To have done your work well and to leave at a time of your choosing are achievements that are beyond most people (and on both scores, Brian, I am still thinking of you). So please raise your glasses to Harry. He has been an excellent colleague and won’t really be missed.

Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:
Why loafing can be work (Mar 19th)
The return of the crowded office (Mar 12th)
Company or cult? (Mar 5th)

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This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “The toast with the most”

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