Career Advice May 14 2012

Ten Things You Should Never Say in a Farewell Letter

By Jeremy Greenfield

Parting is such sweet sorrow, wrote William Shakespeare, but it doesn't have to be if you do it right.

Bad farewells when you leave your job lead to crimped futures. Greg Smith, the ex-Goldmanite who left his former employer via an op-ed in the New York Times, is unlikely to ever work in banking again. Joe Muto, who wrote scathing articles about his work at Fox for salacious media gossip website Gawker, is likely not welcome back at Fox, or really any job in television (Fox, like Dow Jones and FINS is owned by NewsCorp).

"When you go public and take revenge on somebody, it's going to burn bridges," said Bob Bies, a professor of management at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business and author of the book ?Getting Even: The Truth About Workplace Revenge And How to Stop It."

Here are more things not to do when writing that last memo to colleagues and business partners:

Don't Go Public With Criticism

If there's one thing people hate more than being criticized it's being criticized in public.

"You're burning bridges with people who you may have worked with," said Roy Cohen, a finance career expert. "Some people will do it because they have this burning need to set the record straight. But the take-away for the people receiving that kind of farewell letter is, 'Boy, what a jerk.'"

On Wall Street in particular, public dressing down of a firm could get you into legal trouble. People often sign agreements when they join firms that they won't malign the institution?s reputation. Violating those agreements could have consequences.

While farewell letters may not be as public as Smith's New York Times op-ed, a good rule of thumb with any email communication in the office is not to write anything you wouldn't want to see on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, said Judith Gerberg, director of Gerberg & Co., a New York-based career-consulting firm.

Individual Praise is Out, Too

You might be tempted to mention one or two of your colleagues who were especially pleasurable to work with. Resist this temptation. Calling someone out ? even positively ? could be a mistake.

"When you call out a colleague positively in your farewell note, you're saying, 'the rest of you, you're not as good,'" said Dr. Janice Presser, CEO of The Gabriel Institute, a Philadelphia-based technology company that works with recruiters. Play it safe and praise the entire team.

Depending on how you're leaving the company, calling out someone positively could also have unforeseen negative side-effects for that person.

"If you're leaving on bad terms and do it as a gesture of support for that individual, there may be some fallout for that person," said Cohen. "It would be guilt by association."

Don't Tell Secrets

If you have been told things by others in the office in confidence, your farewell letter is not the time to betray that confidence whether it?s personal or professional.

"Say you know somebody has been having an affair in the office," mentioning that they are close with a particular colleague "could violate their privacy," said Cohen. Nor should a farewell letter be the place to become a whistleblower, he said.

Don't Use Words Like "Honestly" or "Frankly"

Speaking of trustworthiness and honesty, using certain words in your farewell letter can subtly indicate to your colleagues that you think unsavory things about them ? even if that isn't the case.

"When you use words like 'honestly' or 'frankly,' it usually means that you've been lying in the past," said Presser. "It tells people that every other time you weren't being honest or frank."

The same is true for other phrases that could easily pass under your radar undetected.

"If you wish them [your colleagues] luck, you're saying you don't have much faith in their natural ability," said Presser. "You really need to think about every word that goes in there."

Don't Fly Off the Handle

This one might be obvious, but many people send emails at the height of their emotions and then regret sending them later. Don't be one of those people.

"Greg Smith wrote his letter and hit send while his emotions were still running high, which you should never do," said Alexandra Levitt, a workplace consultant and the author of several career books. "Although it's well written, he definitely didn't think through the decision to send it all the way through. Can you imagine ever wanting to hire him as an employer?"

Any negative emotion, even eloquently expressed, can leave your colleagues with a negative impression of you.

"If you express any anger, rage, frustration or disappointment, it's a sign of social immaturity," said Cohen.

Don't Surprise Anyone

Even if you're not about to publish an op-ed in a major newspaper about how much you hate your former employer, you should avoid other kinds of surprises. In general, people don't like to be surprised in the office.

"They don't like to not be prepared, especially with something that's not public," said Gerberg. "If you put in your letter that you got a promotion to go to a different company and it's not already known, whether that's said specifically or implied, you're not building bridges. People will resent it, partially because they didn't know."

Don't Write Just One Letter

Those colleagues with whom you had a closer relationship might be offended if they only receive a mass-mailed, perfunctory farewell note. On the other hand, those who you did not know well don't need or want to read a letter where you personally thank everyone on your team.

"Don't just write one letter. There are people who you have a real relationship with who will not love getting just a form letter," said Gerberg. "You don't write the same thing to your nearest and dearest. These are people who are now forever in your circle and you want to leave them with a positive and personal lasting memory of you."

When you write more than one letter, you will have room in each personal note to say things like how much you liked working with each individual on a specific project. You may also want to leave your personal contact information with some colleagues and not others.

Don't Compliment Yourself

The farewell letter is more for your colleagues than for you. It's more important to make them feel good than to toot your own horn.

"It's not the time to say how wonderful you are. It's time to thank people and wish them luck," said Gerberg. If you've spent your final two weeks working hard and making a good impression, your farewell letter won't have to say so.

You want to be remembered as a good team player, said Presser, but talking about your leadership of a team rather than your role as a contributor can be a bad idea.

"When you do that, you're saying, 'the rest of you are not as good,'" said Presser. "Do not refer to yourself as having led the team but having been part of it, even if you led it. That's writing the letter for you. Write for the reader."

Don't Send It to Everyone

There are many people who don't need to know that it's your last day. While it may be tempting to include top executives with whom you've had fleeting contact, resist the urge.

"Don't send it to people you don't actually know," said Gerberg. "It would be odd for them to get a farewell letter from you if you don't have any real relationship with them. Once you leave, if there was some reason to contact them, then that it could be appropriate to reach out at that time."

"When you send this big distribution letter to a top executive, you can look like a person who has no discrimination," said Gerberg.

If you do make the mistake of including a top executive on your distribution list, the best outcome is if "it never gets to them," said Gerberg, which is likely, because you were not an important contact of theirs anyway.

Don't Ramble

Your farewell letter should be short and to the point.

"Don't make it more than one or two paragraphs," said Gerberg. "You're expressing 'thank you, stay in touch, it's been great working with you.' "

If you want to make references to various people you worked with or projects you worked on you should make them in a more personal letter to specific colleagues, said Gerberg.

Write to Jeremy Greenfield at

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