Family Comes First, at Least as an Excuse


In a surprise move, Motorola is denying reports that it recently laid off 9,400 employees: “They quit to spend more time with their families,” a spokesman said. “The timing was purely coincidental.”

In related news, Ford Motor Co. says the reason it’s halting production of the Mercury Cougar is that the car is “weary of constantly being on the road and wants to devote more time to its wife and kids.”

OK, not really. But the concept of abruptly resigning to “spend more time with family” has clearly spun out of control among men. The roster of bigwigs who have invoked family when quitting includes a Swedish prime minister, a CIA director, several presidential advisors, an NFL commissioner, a slew of corporate executives, assorted congressmen and scads of college and pro sports coaches.


(We started to compile a list of every public figure who has quit his job in the last decade to “spend more time with the family,” but it got so long we didn’t have time for our own family.)

Of course, the family excuse is often a smoke screen for getting fired, but “that doesn’t mean there’s not an element of truth to it,” says John Challenger, chief executive of the Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “Most people really do relish the chance to spend more time with their families.”

Indeed, the excuse has become so universal that its predecessor, “to pursue other interests,” has all but vanished. Nevertheless, the latter still comes in handy on occasion.

For example, when the Liggett Group tobacco company announced in 1996 that two of its top execs were resigning on the same day, it would’ve looked fishy if both cited family reasons. Solution? A Liggett spokesman said one wanted to spend more time with family and the second planned to pursue other interests. Nobody suspected a thing.

The rise of “more time with family” retirements apparently began in the 1980s, as society redefined the role of fathers. Before that, a father’s primary mission was to “be a good financial provider,” says Roland Warren, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative. If a high-powered executive in the 1960s had quit to spend more time at home, “it would have been seen as shirking his responsibility to be the breadwinner,” Warren says.

Another impetus for the spend-time-with-family craze is longer work hours. Thanks to corporate downsizing, some employees find themselves “doing the work of two, three or even four people,” Challenger says. “A lot of the joy they once derived from their job is gone. If they’re in a two-income household, some say, ‘Why am I doing this to myself?’ and quit.”

More recently, Sept. 11 led to some job soul-searching, Warren says: “It had a tremendous impact in terms of people focusing on how fragile life is and the importance of spending time with family.”

But many observers view the alleged shift in priorities as a crock. “Ever notice how when these guys resign, they always say it’s to spend more time with their families?” Jay Leno once wisecracked. “But when they first take the job, you never hear a guy say, ‘I came here because I’m sick of my wife and hate my kids. I want to get an apartment with a hooker downtown.’”

When Australia’s Sun Herald published a guide to what politicians really mean when they utter various phrases, the translation for resigning because of “health problems” or “to spend more time with the family” was: “I am quitting before I get carted away in chains.”

So it’s not surprising that most of these “retirements” are short-lived. Sometimes very short-lived. In 1999, Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson decided to keep his job just one day after quitting to spend more time with his family, which must have done wonders for his family’s self-esteem.

Similarly, in 1995, one month after Orange County Supervisor Gaddi Vasquez resigned to spend more time with family, he took a job with Southern California Edison, only to resign that position after three months and become a cop, only to quit that job after a few months and return to Edison. (His latest job, which won Senate confirmation Friday, is running the Peace Corps.)

Face-saving excuses for losing a job are nothing new. Archeologists sifting through the ruins of a prehistoric cave will someday uncover the world’s first resignation letter: “Thag quit. Me want spend more time inventing fire.”

Or they’ll find a medieval parchment that says: “I do hereby quit to spendeth more time storming castles and rescuing fair maidens.”

No doubt, the 21st century will produce its own brand of euphemism for abrupt resignation. Enron boss Ken Lay blew a golden opportunity last week when he failed to say he was stepping down to “spend more time with my attorneys.”

Instead, we’re stuck on the family thing. In January alone, the excuse was invoked by a Sports Illustrated managing editor as well as by Yahoo president Jeff Mallett. (The fact that Yahoo just announced its fifth straight money-losing quarter and that Mallett is the third Yahoo exec in a year to resign for “family” reasons is coincidental.)

To break up the monotony, outplacement consultant Challenger suggests future ousted bigwigs try some alternative euphemisms, such as: “going back to school,” “taking a sabbatical,” “going to work for a nonprofit,” “writing a novel” and “I’ve decided to be a ski bum for six months.”

Actually, he adds, the ski bum rationale sounds too frivolous after Sept. 11.

“People are looking for something more profound as a reason to leave their job,” he says. Maybe “spiritual pilgrimage” is more appropriate.

But fatherhood lobbyist Warren prefers hanging on to spending time with family.

“If it has become a cliche, it’s a good cliche,” he says. “It makes the person who hears it evaluate his own priorities and how he spends his time.”

Good point. As humorist Bruce McCall once noted, the joys of home and hearth are tough to beat: “How can you compare jetting out to Pebble Beach in the company Gulfstream, yet again, for another boring client-golfing weekend with wiping soggy Cheerios off the kitchen floor?”