Sunday, May 6, 2018

Dis/Closure and Sudden Departures

As the years went by, we drifted apart 
When I heard that he was gone 
I felt a shadow cross my heart 
But he's nobody's
Hero - is the voice of reason 
Against the howling mob 
Hero - feels the pride of purpose 
In the unrewarding job 
-Nobody's Hero, Rush
They let my rabbi go on Tuesday.

Rabbi is a term I picked up from David Simon's brilliant tv series The Wire. Baltimore Police officers in that program used the term to describe superiors in the department who had taken an interest in their careers, acting as mentors, advocates, interveners or coaches as the situation dictated.

My rabbi mentored a number of people in my workplace, and was renowned as one of the better 'people managers' in the organization. When the last org chart shuffle left him without anyone reporting directly to him, many of us wondered what the future might hold, but he ended up shepherding a major strategic plan for over a year. The plan involved interviews, an all-hands offsite workshop, and unprecedented collaboration across all levels of the company. It was a pleasure to work on, honestly, and those sentiments were echoed by many others.

But that project wrapped up earlier this year, and on Tuesday we found out he had been let go, along with two other mid-level executives.

Well wishes were disbursed appropriately, and an explanatory email from the boss made it crystal clear that this was not a reflection on anyone's work, but, rather, an existential need to move the organization in a new direction.

True or not though, all I could think of after finding out was what an ignominious end it was for someone who had been so instrumental in moving us to our current culture.

It reminded me of when I had left GW a decade ago; after the initial shock of being told I was leaving the company I had served for over a decade (and moved across the country for on two occasions) had worn off, I believed it was probably for the best. My biggest lament was not being able to attend the big staff conference and tournament being held down east that same week in order to say goodbye.

I'd asked about attending as a guest, and my boss and the HR manager who had accompanied him sifted uncomfortably and said that it wouldn't be possible. And I get it; even with the best of intentions, who's to say I wouldn't let my emotions overcome my better nature once I was actually there, saying goodbye for the last time, confronted with the finality and perceived judgement of it, and undoubtedly socially lubricated by comrades wanting to buy me a drink? No right-thinking leader is going to greenlight a scenario with so many potential sticking points.

But to this day, I deeply regret not being permitted that opportunity for closure. And now I am on the other side of it as my rabbi is forced, without warning or preamble, to wholly reconsider his place in the workforce.

Those of us left behind, colleagues, mentees, beneficiaries of the rabbi's wisdom and insight, have discussed it in hushed terms, and while none of us are particularly shocked, we are all surprised and saddened. It is universally accepted that the suddenness of his departure is discreditable, and reflects poorly upon the organization.

But no one has a reasonable alternative.

I read about some workplaces, in certain situations, giving soon-to-be-ex employees a future end date for their employment. If agreed upon, both parties would have the right to terminate the agreement if certain conditions weren't met by either party, e.g. "Two people have told us about how you made them uncomfortable by either talking smack about your bosses or pressuring them to join your multi-level marketing opportunity, so we are rescinding 1 week of the severance pay in your package and letting you go today instead of next Friday."

I'm sure just coming up with a suitable arrangement would be hellaciously difficult in most situations, to say nothing about how to enforce it, and the challenge of keeping things agreeable until the day of departure. It does create an environment slightly more conducive for closure though, which is something the human element on both sides of this equation will crave.

It's not unlike a death, I suppose. Despite the fact that no one involved is permanently beyond the veil or out of reach, the sudden and dramatic change in the workplace and relationships that have grown out of it are significantly impacted. The outplaced individual has to undergo a sudden and unpleasant reevaluation of their abilities, their goals, and their very selves, while those still in the workplace have cause to question the loyalty of their organization and the very real possibility that their own departure may play out in a similar fashion. Depending on the specific circumstances, a chance to say goodbye might not even help, but on the whole, what would you prefer for yourself?

There is a story about a family that owned a pair of dogs, and when one became ill and had to be put down, the other dog was acting out of character and upset, displaying bad behavior. This continued until the vet advised bringing her in to see the body of their other pet. They did this, and the surviving animal sniffed the body of her counterpart and satisfied herself as to his fate. Afterwards, there was a discernible period of sadness, but a notable improvement afterwards.

If even a simple animal benefits from this manner of closure, why would we deny it to ourselves, even in something as impermanent as a workplace dismissal?

I recognize there are no simple solutions, but I encourage everyone reading this to talk it up with their workplace superiors and HR people; maybe together we can put together a better alternative to sudden emails wishing a suddenly-former colleague all the best in their future endeavours.

In the meantime though, my workplace is now without a gifted individual deeply committed to the well-being of not only the organization, but the individuals who make it up. Days later, I still have to remind myself that I can't ask my rabbi a certain question, or share a certain insight, because he is no longer there because of the shifting vicissitudes of corporate life, and at this particular moment, I find that intrinsically crappy and unfair.

I am confident the rabbi will end up all right, in the same way I know that a person I see taking a painful fall is probably going to walk away from it, albeit with a limp, but that knowledge doesn't make it any more pleasant to witness.

Good luck Rabbi, and thanks for everything. You leave a lot of grateful folk in your wake who are better people now than when they met you. Please remember that despite the way things have played out, there are countless instances in which you are somebody's hero.

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