When I was a young lieutenant I was in a really great unit. The leaders were engaged, and it seemed like everyone was truly dedicated to the Army and the mission. The culture in that unit was very pro-career, and nearly every young officer spoke of long-term career goals.

But occasionally, a young officer would show up that only planned on completing their initial obligation, typically 4-5 years. They had other career and life aspirations, and didn’t think they wanted to stay on active duty for the next 20 years.

These officers were typically looked down on and often treated as second-class citizens. Sure, most of them were as competent as the next guy, but that didn’t matter. They were quitters. They didn’t love this profession the way the rest of us did.

It was easy to adopt this kind of attitude. You were “in” and they weren’t.

When I moved to my next unit a Captain showed up at the same time I did. He had completed the Captain’s Career Course and the Army even sent him to get a Master’s degree. Surely this guy was in for the long haul, right? But those courses come with a minimum service obligation, and as soon as his obligation was nearing an end he decided to leave the Army. We were shocked. He got all that education and training, and didn’t even stick around long enough to command a company. Many of us were prepared to malign this Captain, just like they did in my first unit. Certainly we wouldn’t attend a farewell or award ceremony for this quitter.

Sensing this, our Battalion Commander made attendance at the award ceremony mandatory for all officers. As the officers gathered (and before the Captain showed up) the BC looked around the room at some of the disdainful faces. “Thanks for attending today. You know, a lot of people think that someone who is leaving the Army is a quitter. Nothing could be further from the truth. Such a small percentage of our population actually serves, and this guy gave up six years of his life to serve his country. He performed well during that time, better than some so-called ‘lifers.’ Yet some people will look down on the fact that he has other aspirations for his life and want to treat him as something less.”

He asked us to consider the impact of treating one- or two-term Soldiers and officers as poorly. This is the last impression these folks will have of the Army. Then they will go out into the civilian world. They might go back to their home town. They may have been considering serving in the Reserve Component. They will meet and interact with lots of new people, many of whom don’t know anyone in the Armed Services. These folks represent the Army to much of America. And the last impression they have of the Army is a bunch of snobs looking down on them because they have different life goals. How likely are they to speak highly of their Army experience? They might have been some of our best recruiters. That’s not likely if we don’t treat them right, all the way to the door.

I long thought that this was an Army thing. Certainly, this sort of thing doesn’t happen in the civilian world, right? Sadly, it happens all the time. As more and more people exercise career mobility, people change jobs and locations more frequently than in the past. Some stay with the same organization at a different location, some go to elsewhere. All deserve to be treated with dignity.

We often treat them poorly because we are hurt. We can’t believe they don’t want to work with us any more. We may feel like it’s a personal affront that they are departing. We need to get over that.

Every time someone leaves an organization they take with them impressions of the place they left. People will ask them how it was to work there. The last impression will matter. If we kicked them in the hindquarters on the way out the door because we consider their career move as disloyalty, we can be assured they won’t speak well of our firm. If, on the other hand, we celebrate their departure and send them off with well-wishes they will have a different impression. Who knows, they may say something nice about us that gets people at their new job thinking about us. They may think about returning someday. They may encourage others in their network to check us out.

You never know how things might turn out. What we do know is that if you treat people poorly it is unlikely you will get any benefit from it. If you treat them with dignity and respect, and acknowledge that their life goals may not be embedded in your organization, you never know what will return.

How does your organization treat people who leave? Are you sending out people who now think less of your firm?

For me, I was lucky to learn that lesson early. I try to make sure that valued employees understand that they are welcome back if circumstances change. I need to try to make sure that is part of the culture in every organization I lead.


One thought on “Saying Farewell: How we treat people who leave matters

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