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Sometimes it Hurts to Say Goodbye

February 13, 2012

Quite often the hardest part of any relationship can be the goodbye.  We certainly experience this with our friends and loved ones; sending a child off to school, mourning the passing of someone near and dear to us or even watching a spouse or partner pack for an extended business trip.  When a friend accepts a job and moves cross-country we realize that although we can stay in touch, we are still bidding adieu to some elements of the friendship.

We say farewell in the workplace too; colleagues retire, change jobs, or move on for other reasons.

And sometimes those other reasons are involuntary  – reductions-in-force/layoffs or terminations for behavior or job performance.  Not necessarilly the scenarios which lend themselves to balloons, greeting cards and department cakes from the bakery down the street.

Those involuntary goodbyes are tough on everyone.  And often toughest on the managers who are making the decision to move someone out of the organization.


Many years ago I interviewed Vanessa for an administrative assistant position that was open in my department.  Although her personal story was not something that was a necessary part of the interview process, based on circumstances surrounding her referral for the position I was aware of what she had gone through in her life; she had become a mother at a very young age (15) and lived in a tenuous family situation.  She persevered through some rough circumstances and finished high school, continued on with post HS education and built up a few solid years of work experience.  Not only did she have some great skills but she had a winning personality,  an indomitable spirit and a deep desire to be a strong role model for her young daughter.  I extended the job offer and Vanessa joined our team.

And she was a success.  For about 6 months.  Then, bit by bit, the challenges she faced at home began to follow her into the office.  A sibling landed in prison – again.  Her new boyfriend, himself a regular habitue of the local jail, moved in with Vanessa, her daughter and her mother and domestic violence came back into her life.  Her own absent father resurfaced.  She began to miss work.  A lot.

For months I counseled her and coached her.  I referred her to community resources and wrote letters of support so she could receive some services.  I cried with her when she came to work with bruises.  And my heart broke when she came to me in tears and informed me she was pregnant, telling me that being the 23 year old mother of an 8 year old was tough enough – she didn’t know how she could manage with another child.   But after several solid weeks of every-other-day absences I felt like a scolding parent when I told her “one more unscheduled absence and you’ll be gone.”

A few days later she didn’t show up to work, however she left me a message in the afternoon saying she would be in the next day.   I didn’t sleep much that night.

The next morning when Vanessa arrived at work I called her into my office and terminated her employment.  She didn’t weep, she didn’t scream.  She thanked me and gathered her personal things from her desk.  She hugged her co-workers goodbye, wished me the best, and walked out the door.   I didn’t sleep much that night either.


About a year later I was attending a giant Career Fair and manning my booth.  Hundreds and hundreds of employers with THOUSANDS of candidates strolling up and down the aisles.   Around mid-afternoon a lull hit; weary recruiters were restocking their candy jars or milling about and comparing notes with their counterparts from other companies.  I glanced down the walkway and saw a familiar face in the uniform of a well-respected iconic-brand; a giant employer in town whose team I had always wanted to join.

It was Vanessa.  At about the same time she saw me – and a huge smile broke across her face.  She practically ran to me and grabbed me in a big hug.  She was shaking and laughing and talking so fast I had to ask her to slow down.  She pulled out her wallet and showed me the picture of her twins who had just celebrated their 6 month birthday.  She proudly twirled around in her uniform and told me she had been working there just a few months and she was so happy.  She had left the abusive boyfriend, moved away from her old neighborhood and finally felt that her life was on track.

“And I have to thank you most of all,” she said.  “I always meant to call you but I was afraid to start the conversation. Your letting me go was the best thing you could have ever done.  I appreciated all you did and how you helped me with my family and my life.  And I know it was hard on you to fire me but I thank you for it.”

And then we said goodbye.  But that goodbye didn’t hurt.

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