Departing with Dignity and Grace

I was gently ‘retired.’ I had every reason to be bitter and angry, but I decided to let it go. I would go out with dignity.

There is a famous line in the film Invincible, when the wife of one of the main characters reminds her husband of a time-tested principle: “Character is tested when you’re up against it.”

In other words, true character is exposed when a person is in the toughest of situations.

And one of the toughest situations anyone can go through in their career is departing an organization, in particular when the departure is forced upon us, either by downsizing, restructuring, or outright termination. These are the situations when true character is brought to light. These are also situations in which one’s legacy is cemented in the eyes of everyone they ever worked with. How do they go out, with dignity? Or classless and vengeful and looking like petty and immature individuals?

It never ceases to amaze me to see supposedly intelligent people, who invested 15 or 20 years in building a reputation in an organization, tear it all down by departing in the wrong way. Of letting their true character finally come out.

In 1997 I had in my organization a young marketing manager named Piotr. He was a hardworking guy, very passionate. But in the “up or out” world of P&G Marketing, he had some skill gaps. So, we eventually made the decision to let him go.

I sat him down and gently gave him the news. He took it well, was not surprised, and was mature and composed. He thanked me for the opportunity and promised to work diligently over the coming two months until he left, to ensure a smooth handover.

About two months later, and in fact on Piotr’s last day, I was walking out of the office at 9 p.m. The office was dark except for one desk light on in the far back. I went to investigate and found Piotr pulling an all-nighter… on his last day! He said to me, “I want to close this budget out and ensure my successor takes it over in perfect shape.” I had tears in my eyes. I even wondered if I had perhaps made the wrong decision! His professionalism was mind-blowing.

I grabbed him by the shoulders, thanked him and I told him, “You are a good man. I am always there for you if you need me. Don’t hesitate to ask.” I was really touched. And impressed. And wondering if I had made a mistake.

A few years passed, and Piotr and I stayed in touch. When he later interviewed for a top role in Kodak, I was a reference. I made sure Kodak understood what a professional person Piotr was. He got the job. Over the past 22 years I have vouched for Piotr several times to his benefit. And it will always go back to that defining moment — the dignity of his departure. He showed his character. And character means something.

I never forgot Piotr. And when 2009 rolled around, and I got a similar call from P&G Management, I remembered his example. I was pulled in and gently “retired.” Or call it fired; it is nothing more than nuances of the same end result. I had every reason to be bitter and angry, having been thrown under the bus. But I decided to let it go. The decision was made behind closed doors weeks before. I was a big boy and I knew that.  I would go out with dignity.

I never bad-mouthed anyone. I didn’t seek to drag somebody down with me. I worked my ass off. I did everything P&G asked over my final months and then some. I blew people away with my honor and professionalism. On my last day, I taught a Brand Manager College in Hong Kong to a standing ovation, flew back to Manila and turned in my badge.

I supported P&G and its people every day forward. I went back and taught training sessions. Wrote articles supporting P&G leaders. I sometimes offered constructive criticism but in a positive tone. I kept in touch with P&G people and still mentor dozens of P&Gers to this day. I am supportive and positive and professional. And that’s why even more than a decade after I left P&G, there are still clear ties and mutual respect.

I have had several cases in my current organization that have just blown me away. I have an employee now who we chose to separate with after a long period of patience and steady feedback. The moment we delivered the message, this person more or less “disappeared” and doesn’t show up half the time. She’s also taken an unannounced and unapproved vacation. Sure, she is probably thinking, “I can get away with it, they can’t fire me twice,” but this is incredibly shortsighted. It shows a complete lack of character. I can tell you I have now zero regrets about this decision. Every action she takes further reinforces she doesn’t have the character or professionalism to work in our company. She is choosing to leave without class or dignity. And she leaves with her reputation in tatters and no hope of a good reference going forward. The world is a small place. Reputation should matter to everyone. It doesn’t take much to undo years of hard work with foolish and petty behaviors.

We have also had some sad cases with former senior managers. It’s sad because when they worked within the company, they enjoyed strong reputations and were even, in some cases, revered. Then they fall into the crevices of a restructure and have their roles eliminated. And in a classic case of “crab mentality” (when crabs are put into boiling water, they try to drag other crabs in with them. Nobody ever said a crab had much character!), several of these managers went on letter-writing campaigns to drag down others with them in a case of raw vengeance and “I will bring you down with me!” They bad-mouth the company and leadership. And it’s sad to hear what their reputation is today. It’s in tatters. They are looked at as petty, bitter, vindictive, immature, and classless. A far cry from where they once stood. And since they are gone, this is the reputation they will live with every day forward.

Anyone who takes risks in their career, who strives to grow and advance, is going to have 80 percent odds of being fired once or more in their career. It’s nearly inevitable. It happened to me already, and someday it might happen again. Being fired doesn’t matter. How we react as individuals does matter. From not only personal experience but also keen observation, my advice to anyone is this: Remember the “Piotr Principle.” Go out with dignity and grace. Blow people away with your professionalism. Make them wonder if they even made the right choice! Give them every reason to wonder. And when you do finally go, you can go with your head held high.