Walking Away

Recently, three employees at the organization I work for, decided to retire.  These were each long-time employees, and each had a different approach to their departure.

Deciding when to leave a job is a very personal matter.  Some leave for better opportunities, some reach the end of their work careers, some have health issues, and others escape.

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The American workplace, and the worker, have each changed.  Gone are the days when most people wanted to settle into job and make it a long career, anticipating the gold watch.  Many organizations have scaled back on benefits, while some have increased or made portable, retirement programs.  While most organizations probably want employment stability, some factor in turnover or churn, anticipating a workforce that changes over.  This allows greater flexibility of organizations to adjust the workforce as needed: expansion, contraction, converting or oursourcing positions.  The use of part-time and contracted positions are designed to also add flexibility, mainly for the benefit of the employer but sometimes for the employee.  Not everyone is looking for a traditional 40-hour week job.

We constantly hear how younger generations prefer to move around instead of the baby boomer desire for stability and longevity.  While this is somewhat true, it is not true of everyone.  Younger workers, according to my experience, tend to want different things from their employment and work environment than earlier generations of workers.  Not to generalize too much, but younger workers want jobs with more flexibility including work from home, adjustable hours, work environments that encourage collaboration, more use of technology, and are keen on educational opportunities and learning challenges.  Again, not true of everyone but it does seem to trend.

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I wonder what Millennials or Gen-Xers think about these 30-year geezers who have been in just one main job their entire careers.  I can see both sides; I’ve moved around some, but I’ve also been in one job for nearly 18 years.  I have seen longtime employees who deeply appreciated working an entire career in one organization, who have developed a legacy and are admired and respected for what they have contributed over a long period of time.  Conversely, I have known employees who are entrenched, resistant to change, sometimes a source of workplace conflict, and who are essentially retired in place.  These are folks you wish had moved onward and are a reason to like some churn in an organization.

Back to the three employees who recently retired.  None of these were instant decisions; each person planned with the HR retirement staff on certain retirement dates.  One employee gave us a month or so notice, allowing us to begin the recruitment process.  His job did not involve long term projects or result in work team problems.  He wanted, and enjoyed, a farewell event.  The second employee provided less than two weeks notice and requested that word of his retirement not be circulated, therefore no goodbye event.  We were able to begin recruitment but his quick departure will impact not only the distribution of work but is a sudden institutional experience gap.  The third employee provided an email retirement notice and essentially left the building, same day.

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Three different employees, three different approaches.  It is beneficial when employees provide advanced notice of their decision to retire.  It certainly helps the organization prepare for the departure, and it gives both the employee and organization an opportunity for closure.

Every organization is different.  I have heard stories of longtime employees given the cold shoulder by companies upon retirement – not even a verbal goodbye or thanks.  That is probably not a good place to work, when a company totally ignores the contribution and service of an employee.  What kind of culture or display of organizational values is that?

Other organizations embrace the departing employee with some event or at least a small recognition.  A public event is often the last thing an employee wants; what is meant to be a display of appreciation is not welcome by everyone.  Numerous employees have said this to me.  One employee, suspecting he was going to get a public “thank you” for a service anniversary, took a personal day and was absent.

For many, an event with co-workers and family, is deep appreciated and a respectful way to windup a career.  It also gives other in the organization a chance to say goodbye, but it really depends on the person.  There is a delicate balance between a gesture of thank you by the organization, and something that is uncomfortable and forced public display.

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When an employee walks away abruptly, other employees ask why?  Was the employee unhappy and escaping?  Was this intended as a message to the organization?  Was this an effort to avoid any public event?  Is there a problem in the organization that has gone unnoticed?  It does makes you wonder.

Walking away is a big decision, which most people do not take lightly.  I sensed that two of the three departing employees were unhappy about something.  While neither one of them enjoyed the spotlight, public recognition was not required. So why did they leave the way they did?  I know the supervisors of both employees; each is a caring and employee-focused supervisor, at least that is how I see them.  Was there some other issue?  Why at the end of a long career so awkward an exit?

Back to reality.  The world does not end when someone leaves; everyone is replaceable.  In professional football, when a player departs or is injured, or doesn’t play well, it is the next man up.  Not every sentimental, but it happens, life goes on.

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If you don’t think values matter, try working for an organization that only cares about production or results, where people are commodities to be used up.  Remember my earlier example of an organization not even saying goodbye to a longtime employee. Conversely, organizations want employees who are honest, have integrity and care about their workplace.  An alignment of values between the employer and employee is a good arrangement, and helps to make an effective relationship.  But values do not exist in a vacuum. Things change, and the relationship can change.  And people walk away.


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