Not long after I started life as a public servant I was dragged along to a retirement ‘event’ for a long-serving member of staff. It was faintly embarassing in that particularly British way.
On a formica topped table in a meeting room was a slew of paper plates haphazardly carrying nibbles, sandwiches and, o yes, cocktail sausages. A wine box was used to fill an odd assortment of plastic cups and the few wine glasses that, for some reason (presumably this), lived in a cardboard box under the staff room sink.
The guest of honour looked thoroughly ill-at-ease as the local senior manager sang his praises. We discovered that Bob (not his real name) was popular and conscientious. That his career had had many successes. And that we would all be sorry to see Bob go. But it was time for Bob to spend more time doing the things he’d always dreamed about (not that these were specified).
Bob looked more and more perplexed. After our toast and the presentation of a garden centre voucher he was pushed into saying a few words. These were, ‘Thank you,’ and, ‘Better make sure I put a note on the back of the front door to remind me not to leave for work tomorrow.’
And off Bob went.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how bad we’ve become at marking events like retirements or achieving long-service milestones. We somehow seem to have lost the knack of being formal when that’s the right thing to be. I think that’s a shame. However hideous Bob seemed to find the goodbye experience it was not just for him. It was a way for his colleagues who did truly esteem him to say so and have that marked in some way.
Of course all the etiquette changes when departures are down to redundancy. What would once have been rare is now common place. And colleagues with many loyal years of service behind them are quietly disappearing from the scene. It’s getting hard to keep up.
I bumped into an old colleague today who was surprised to see me still around (although I have to say I was just as surprised to see them).
‘Thought you’d left,’ they said.
‘Nope, still here.’
‘Never mind,’ they said.
Nevermind? I thought. I’ve not just stubbed my toe but I smiled vaguely and moved on.
I began to wonder on the way home this evening whether we should should devise a new etiquette to guide us through how to be with colleagues (or ourselves) during redundancy. This would obviously need to deal with the vexed question of office send offs.
Perhaps a standard speech for senior management?
‘It’s with a mixture of pride and sorrow that we meet today to mark the redundancy of [insert name]. [Insert name] has been loyal, creative and hard-working during their remarkable career with [insert name of public agency here]. But given we’re [being abolished/having 50% funding cuts/hated by the ministerial team] (delete as appropriate) it’s time for [insert name] to move on to pastures new. Good luck and bon voyage!’
Alternatively of course we could borrow a leaf out of the last Labour Chief Secretary’s book and leave a note.
‘Money’s gone. And so are you.’
In all seriousness the sudden loss of so many colleagues and friends from one’s life is profoundly saddening. I think that senior leaders have a responsiblity to ensure each person’s departure is handled properly. That they have a chance to leave well.
We put a lot of effort quite rightly into induction but little into how to manage the mechanics of departure in a thoughtful way. For some reason management’s emotional intelligence seems to go walkabout when dealing with departures. I’ve sat with colleagues in recent days trying to help them work around some bizarre decisions.
The decisions have been made by people who are not evil but they seem batty from the perspective of someone being made redundant. One of my colleagues said to me that they hated being made to feel that they now had to ‘game’ within the rules now in place. After twenty odd years service they hated having their memories of the whole of their career shredded because management lack the insight to help them leave well.
The conversation left me deeply sad. Loyalty is now such a debased currency that it seems foolish to even mention it in connection with employment. But I think loyalty deserves something more than being its own reward.
It means that managers should work much harder on getting people’s departures right.
Me? I’ve always thought the classiest exit I ever heard was John Arlott’s sign off from his last radio commentary after 34 years of broadcasting.
‘And after Trevor Bailey it will be Christopher Martin-Jenkins.’