Adieu, farewell, auf Wiedersehn

November 2, 2007

Don't diss your old workplace, take home stuff that isn't yours or get all weepily sentimental at your leaving do. Harriet Swain gives tips on how to depart for greener pastures with good grace and a smile. Parting can be such sweet sorrow - or it can be a blessed relief. Either way, it's a good idea not to dwell too much on the sweetness and relief aspects in front of your soon-to-be former colleagues.

For one thing, don't forget they will be staying. Whether you have decided to leave for another institution or are leaving academia altogether, it isn't sensitive to their feelings to go around criticising the kind of life they face for years to come.

And there's always the chance that your paths will cross in the future.

Dan Ashley, spokesman for the University and College Union, says: "Burning bridges is never a wise option, especially if you are going to remain in a certain field or discipline or may return to it one day." He advises against seeing your departure as an opportunity to express the frustrations that led to it.

"Academic staff operate in relatively small worlds of subject and research interest networks, and there are always dark rumours about secret blacklists," he warns. "Comments made in a farewell speech or interview may well travel."

On the other hand, if you are leaving because the atmosphere is very bad or because there is a particular problem, then it is your responsibility to give that feedback to senior people in the organisation, says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School.

He suggests writing down as dispassionately as possible what the organisation needs to do if it wants to keep people like you in future and giving your note to the head of personnel. Don't be hostile, even if your experience has been a complete nightmare. Instead, try to be as constructive as possible.

"Universities don't get enough feedback about how they manage human beings," says Cooper. "Then they are accused of having an autocratic management style. But how can they do something about it unless they get feedback?"

Helen Scott, executive officer of the Universities Personnel Association, says that when you tell your manager that you are leaving (and you should do this in person rather than leaving a note in the in-tray) it is likely you will be asked why. It is therefore useful to work out beforehand what you are going to say. You also need to think carefully about whether there is anything the manager could say that would make you change your mind - because he or she might say it.

Scott says you should make sure you tell senior staff that you are going before you tell your colleagues, and it is important to check your contract so you know exactly how much notice you need to give. She advises keeping back some paid holiday so that you can have a break before you start your new job without risking a gap in death-in-service benefits. It may be possible to go sooner than it says in your contract, but if this is what you want try to present your manager with suggestions about how your department could cope without you in the interim.

In any case, it is wise to leave everything in good order and have some kind of handover period if at all possible.

There is also practical stuff to do, such as arranging to keep on your e- mail address for a month and setting up an e-mail message that will give everyone your new contact details. Scott says you should check whether the payroll department will give you your P45 or put it in the post. If you are not going on to a job in another institution you also need to sort out what is happening with your pension and fill in all the relevant forms about deferred benefits.

For academic staff, sorting out what belongs to them and what to the institution could take time, but it is important not to walk off with anything that doesn't belong to you. It is also vital to work out what will happen to any students or postdoctoral students involved in your research grants, or PhD supervision, and give them plenty of notice if it will be necessary for them to move with you.

Cooper says that during your notice period you should make it a high priority to invest time in the people that matter to you, making it clear that you value their friendship and will maintain the relationship.

He says he hates the traditional kind of leaving party where people you don't like and who don't like you are invited. Instead, he advises making sure that you are in control of your own leaving party so you can invite the people you want.

Valerie Atkinson, who retired in 2005 after 33 years at York University, says this helps to avoid "the big surprise" where colleagues invite either an ex-lover or "an elderly ex-boss who will pin you in a corner and bore you to the point of suicide by telling you in great detail about his teapot collection".

Her advice is to avoid occasions that involve sitting down and eating, which means you will be trapped, and to always look pleased about the presents.

When it comes to the leaving speech, Cooper says the safest thing to do is to make it relatively humorous and highlight the good aspects of working in the department. Putting down one or more of your colleagues, even in jest, is not acceptable unless the person concerned knows you like them a lot - and everyone else knows it too.

Other big no-nos are suggesting how the department should operate in future or becoming weepily sentimental, according to William Macnair, managing director of The Rhetorical Company, which offers training in effective speech-making. Nor is it the time for using slides or PowerPoint.

Instead, it's all about saying a personal goodbye rather than trying to come up with anything serious or memorable. His advice is: "Leave with a smile and a wave, wishing them well."

More information

University and College Union, www.ucu.org.uk

Universities Personnel Association, www.upa.ac.uk

The Rhetorical Company, www.rhetoric.co.uk

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