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Being a Good Former Employee

I am not going anywhere. If I tried to leave my job, particularly right now, I can think of a dozen people who would hunt me down and bring me back. So don’t take this as some kind of broad hint. I just thought about the issue of being the former employee because I had a very funny dream two nights ago where I went back to visit libraries I had worked at and was scolded by a former boss (who I happen to like a lot) because I was late to an event where they all dressed up in Revolutionary War costumes (go figure, it’s a dream, o.k.?). Jo, I’m sorry, next time I won’t be tardy!

I’ve been a former employee a few times, and I have plenty of experience with former employees as well. The more closely entwined you were with the operation, the harder it can be to change roles.

One new complication is that in our ever-connected, always-on world, moving on can be much more difficult. In the old days, you got in your car and drove out of the parking lot, and that, for the most part, was it. (Though even in Olde Tymes, not everyone excelled at being a former employee, as I illustrate below.) But now people who were in our lives before are just an email away (just as they were when you worked there). The former place of work is often visible right there on the Web, with frequent updates about new projects and activities. An instant message shimmers on your computer screen, and in the moment, it can be hard to remember that you aren’t back in your old office, your old role, your old job.

Leaving is no longer just a physical act, a car door slamming and a wave good-bye; now it’s a commitment to shift your role to that of the former employee. You have to be intentional. It’s possible that’s really easy for you; but at least one of these tips might resonate.

(I am only tangentially addressing the complexities of moving from a last job into retirement. We had a former editor at MPOW who did it all just right and moved on with a well-thought-out plan for her new role as a magnificently retired librarian. She continues to be my role model. But that’s a post for another day.)

So, Michael-Stephens-style, here’s my top ten list for former employees (or about-to-be-former-employees):

1. No matter how you feel, go to the going-away party, say gracious things, and squeal over the presents. You will appreciate how cleansing this is. (Actually, I adore parties and presents under any circumstances, and have many fond memories, so definitely don’t take this point as a roman a clef. But I do speak from first-hand knowledge.)

2. Make amends before you leave with anyone you were on the outs with. For rationale, see #1. This, I have had to do, and it was good.

3. Do not breeze out of there with the cop-out, “Questions? Just call me!” Act as if you were traveling to another planet and would be unavailable for oh, say, a few million years; make it hard for them to need to call you for information. Document everything you do that isn’t obvious, including all your passwords and usernames, expiration dates, renewal notices, etc. Put it in a folder or binder or something else unavoidable. They may not use it (one former place didn’t open the binder for several months, until after emailing me they realized it really did have information they needed). Nevertheless, it’s the right thing to do.

4. Clean your office. Take everything that’s yours.

5. Return anything that’s theirs.

6. Be sure to say goodbye to the people who made a difference: the accountant. The mailroom team. The UPS man who left little gifts at the holidays. The volunteer who showed up even on days like Christmas Eve and the Friday of a holiday weekend. The very young page who quietly showed up on time, shelved the books, and didn’t make a fuss.

7. Remember you don’t work there any more. (This is a particular sticking point with some former bosses. In talking to other managers, I have detected a pattern, rare but real, of “About Schmidt” behavior, where staff have to tiptoe around former bosses who do not quite grasp the “former” part of their new status.) If you still live in the area, avoid “just stopping in,” at least for a while. (And if you think you can’t, interrogate your motives.) Even if you have plenty of time on your hands, don’t offer to volunteer; it might be hard to say no to you, and your motives may be more complicated than you realize.

8. Watch your social interactions very carefully. Think before socializing with former employees. Likewise, if you were in a significant role and you are suddenly befriended by an employee from the former library, think through what’s going on. It could just mean that a former employee wanted to socialize with you and didn’t feel free to do so before, which is a benefit of moving on, but it might not be motive-free. Be careful about “casual” email exchanges, which might not be as casual as they appear. Above all, bells should go off if you are approached by staff asking you to offer your opinion on a workplace issue.

9. Refrain from criticizing changes that take place, even if you vehemently disagree with these changes, even if these were changes you fought off for years. That means don’t complain publicly, don’t complain to former staff, and don’t complain to the former employer. You can write that long, excoriating email full of juicy bon mots about all the mistakes made in the current regime, but delete it before you send it. Then move on. If you find it hard to let go, remember that great line from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: “Don’t look back, or you’ll turn into a pillar of s–t.”

10. Every once in a while, check in to say you miss people, that the place looks great, that the new whatsis service is inspired, that you remember the good times, that you learned a lot and took what you learned to your new job or into retirement. If you’ve been a good former employer, they will be glad to hear from you, and you’ll feel good, too.

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