The leaving do

Written by Martyn Sloman on 21 August 2013

High summer is a season of 'leaving-dos'.  This is particularly so at universities where, seeking economies of scale, the approach is to offer a single event for all those who are moving to a new institution at the start of the academic year in the autumn.  Doubtless some people appreciate or even enjoy the leaving-do.  Many others dread or actively avoid the occasion - and this includes the leaver as well as those left behind. 

We can all recall the leaving do that goes wrong and is a cause of embarrassment for those attending.  At a recent 'economies of scale' university leaving do, three academic staff and the office cleaner were the subjects of the ritual presentation.  A single farewell speech from the head of School was followed by a series of adequate and short 'thank-yous' from the departing academics.   Then the cleaner took the floor and used the occasion for an extended and emotional evangelical exhortation in which she listed those who had been the subject of her prayers and the evident impact of divine intervention.  It was only terminated through a co-ordinated round of applause which left her stranded in mid-sentence.  

Often the subject of the leaving do is departing under a cloud or following a difficult relationship with their boss.  The unwritten convention here is that someone other than the boss makes the speech and, if the relationship is really bad, the boss is unavoidably detained elsewhere at short notice. I came up through the coal industry and was working at headquarters during the traumatic period of the 1984/5 miners strike. Ian Macgregor has been appointed chairman of the Coal Board by Margaret Thatcher and set about getting rid of significant numbers of senior staff that he felt did not share his or the Prime Minister's values. I was far from alone in regarding his approach as unnecessarily brutal.  One departing senior manager, who had given a lifetime's service to the industry, began his leaving speech with: "Thank you.  This is a very moving occasion: Public displays of hypocrisy always are."

Another danger with the leaving do is the inappropriate speech delivered by someone who has been the given the job at very short notice because the person who should have delivered it has been called away elsewhere. Something is then cobbled together in a hurry with incorrect emphasis and an ignorance of any real achievements. The audience studies its collective footwear and claps enthusiastically before hurrying to take the cling film off the sandwiches and open the long-life orange juice.

Given all these minefields why do we bother with the leaving do at all? Here I will call on an observation that has remained in my memory from those Coal Board days.  I had the enormous benefit of learning from superb developmental boss.  He was called Dick Bresland and as well as being thoroughly professional and correct in his personnel practices was a thoughtful and considerate individual.  As the headquarters staff manager it was his practice always to attend the leaving do of those people who were moving into retirement after a long period of service.  He felt that they should have a decent send-off.  However, he would not attend leaving events for those people who were moving to better jobs outside the organisation. This did not reflect any resentment on his part - simply a feeling that it was their choice but should not be celebrated.

I am not sure that I fully share this view but I do have some opinions of my own. When I have left an organisation I have always appreciated the person who has taken the trouble to ring me up or drop me a note (now an e-mail) wishing me all the best for the future and thanking me for what I had done. This is important where there had been a good working relationship.  By contrast my irritation has always been with those who made no effort to say goodbye and then have the gall to contact me later and ask for a favour when they need something. At the end of the day a thoughtful personal touch is much better than a collective ritual.

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