Hit ‘send,’ then hit the door
It was not the most eloquent subject line for a farewell e-mail to 5,000 co-workers: “So long, suckers! I’m out!”
But Jason Shugars worked at Google, whose off-center corporate culture is more forgiving than that of your average buttoned-down investment bank. In the rest of his goodbye, Shugars, a senior sales compliance specialist, reminisced about workplace moments that included putting cake down his pants at a sales conference, stealing a boss’ $8,000 leather couch and singing “Hit Me Baby One More Time” in a miniskirt and braids.
“It took me a long time to write it,” said Shugars, 34, who left Google to become director of ad operations for the music streaming website Imeem. “I didn’t want to send out a stale ‘good working with you, please reach me here’ e-mail. Who wants that?”
That’s a good question these days, now that thousands of people are finding themselves with pink slips and the need to let colleagues and contacts know they are moving on and -- perhaps more important for job seekers -- how they can be reached.
The farewell e-mail has suddenly become commonplace, a new art form in the electronic age. Yet like so many aspects of the Internet era -- how to unfriend on Facebook, how much to reveal on a personal blog -- the technology has gotten ahead of the etiquette. There are, quite simply, no rules.
Some farewell e-mails, like Shugars’, strike a lighthearted, even funny tone. Some are workmanlike and short. Others are poetic or poignant, expressing surprise or regret at the turn of events. A very few -- and these are the ones that get most of the attention -- use the electronic goodbye to blast the boss.
In May, lawyer Shinyung Oh was let go from the San Francisco branch of the Paul Hastings law firm six days after losing a baby. The seven-year associate, who said she was told her previous, glowing evaluations may have been “overinflated,” composed a blistering e-mail to the partners and fired it off to about 1,000 colleagues around the world.
She accused the firm’s partners of “heartlessness” and of blaming her for failing to generate business “that should have been brought in by each of you.”
“If this response seems particularly emotional,” she wrote to the partners, “perhaps an associate’s emotional vulnerability after a recent miscarriage is a factor you should consider the next time you fire or lay someone off. It shows startlingly poor judgment and management skills -- and cowardice -- on your parts.”
Within an hour, Oh said, her e-mail was posted on a widely read legal affairs blog, then made its way into the mainstream media.
Oh has no regrets. She is also changing professions.
“I am glad I spoke out,” said Oh, 38, who has launched a blog, is taking writing classes and is pregnant again. “It’s been really good for me on a personal level. It made me reassess my life, and that’s a good thing.”
Will Schwalbe, coauthor of “Send: Why People E-mail So Badly and How to Do it Better,” said the farewell e-mail was a reflection of two intersecting trends: the universality of e-mail and the confessional spirit of the times, which have resulted, as he put it, in “the democratization of the process.”
In the pre-computer world, Schwalbe said, “Personnel wrote something -- a memo, Xeroxed -- generally, you didn’t get to do it. They did it. But what had been an HR function is now a personal function.” That, he said, leads to a different sort of message.
When Pasadena-based Wescom Credit Union, a firm with about 1,000 employees, had layoffs recently, there were no mass e-mail farewells because workers don’t have access to all-encompassing e-mail lists.
“We have very strict standards, safeguards that IT has put in place don’t allow that to happen,” said Diane Norton Smith, Wescom’s vice president for human resources. “I have seen situations where somebody said goodbye and you get the reply all, reply all, reply all, ‘We’re gonna miss you,’ and that clogs up the whole system.”
That occasionally happened last summer and fall when the farewells of laid-off Los Angeles Times staffers hit inboxes in successive waves.
Some of the goodbyes were bittersweet, some philosophical. Many were entertaining.
Jaime Cardenas, a young sports reporter, spliced his note with stanzas from Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” (“I used to rule the world . . . Now in the morning I . . . Sweep the streets I used to own.”). Perry Crowe, an editor for the Guide, compared losing his job to a scene from a movie: “It’s sort of like in Superman II when Non rips the light off the top of a police car and hurls it at a boy in the distance and it explodes like a motherlovin’ mortar round and a woman cries out, ‘He was just a boy!’ ”
Outplacement professionals, naturally, are against the parting shot because they fear for a person’s ability to land a new job.
“It’s so easy to e-mail, and that’s the risk, isn’t it?” said John Challenger of the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. “Once you’ve put it out there, you can’t get it back.”
Vent to your mom or boyfriend, said Alison Doyle, a job search expert on About.com. “You can have all these feelings but you shouldn’t necessarily share them. And don’t go on about how terrible this is, and ‘I don’t know how I am gonna buy the groceries.’ Err on the side of too little information rather than too much.”
Sometimes, though, an angry goodbye e-mail can alter the terms of a layoff in a good way.
For 20 years, Steve Bass wrote for PC World, a magazine with a circulation of 600,000. He had a popular monthly column, a blog and an electronic newsletter called Tips & Tweaks.
In August, in a cost-cutting measure, the magazine said it would pay only for the blog, which could then be “repurposed” for the column.
“At the time, I was devastated,” said Bass, 61, who lives in the Pasadena area and has launched a free e-mail newsletter called TechBite. He e-mailed his readers a farewell, revealing his dismay at what he felt had been poor treatment by the magazine. “I lost a hefty chunk of change,” Bass wrote. “It’s still a stunner. . . . It gets worse. . . . Unfortunately, the guy I had to deal with didn’t know how to negotiate. His tactic was to just say no to everything.”
Steve Fox, who became PC World’s new editorial director shortly after Bass was sacked, said he received about 100 angry e-mails.
“I have to say I was initially perturbed by it,” Fox said. “But ultimately it’s about business, and having been a freelance writer myself, I understood why he was upset. He is a talented guy. He did not burn a bridge with me, but I would imagine there were other people here who were ticked at what he had done.”
Bass was invited to stay on the masthead as a contributing editor and write occasional features.
Richard Bravo, a 34-year-old New Yorker, did not take the blaze-of-glory approach. He was managing editor of DNR (Daily News Record). In November, the 116-year-old menswear trade publication, the oldest title in the Conde Nast stable, was combined with its sister publication, Women’s Wear Daily.
He had reason to be miffed. He was three days short of his third anniversary, so his severance credited him for only two years.
Bravo sent his goodbye to people from both spheres of his life -- “pretty much everyone I knew on a personal level or a work level who I thought might have some sort of need to get in touch with me.”
He was straightforward and brief: “I apologize for the mass e-mail, but today’s issue of DNR will be the last. . . . We folded last week and are now on ‘forced vacation’ to put it nicely. . . . If you need to get in touch with me please use this info.”
“I think my biggest concern was not to make it sound melodramatic,” Bravo said. “There is nothing worse than those e-mails, nothing worse than mass e-mails, period. So you can never make a mass e-mail classy, but I wanted to make it as close to being classy as one could.”
His e-mail lead to a number of freelance assignments, Bravo said, “so it definitely succeeded on that front.”
Last year, when Yahoo executive Stewart Butterfield composed an absurdist, mock-epic goodbye to the struggling Internet giant, he seemed to be dinging a corporate culture gone complacent.
“As you know, tin is in my blood,” wrote Butterfield, 35, whose photo-sharing website Flickr was acquired by Yahoo in 2005. “When I joined Yahoo! back in ’21, it was a sheet-tin concern of great momentum, growth and innovation. I knew it was the place for me.”
But, Butterfield continued, “my ability to contribute has dwindled to near-nothing and not entirely because of my advancing age. . . . I will be spending more time with my family, tending to my small but growing alpaca herd and, of course, getting back to working with tin, my first love.”
A few years before Butterfield bent the genre, an aspiring comedy writer named Chris Kula penned a long mock farewell e-mail on his blog. At the time, Kula was a receptionist at a New York engineering firm, honing his craft on the side.
“For nearly as long as I’ve worked here,” he wrote, “I’ve hoped that I might one day leave this company. And now that this dream has become a reality, please know that I could not have reached this goal without your unending lack of support.”
The missive was linked on blogs around the English-speaking world and was even plagiarized by an Irish employee of the accounting firm Ernst & Young, who was forced to apologize (not to Kula, but to his former bosses) when he disseminated the letter as his own, complete with a reference to a co-worker’s flatulence.
For Kula, however, the fake farewell, which he penned after deciding to leave the engineering firm, was a career boon.
“I used it as a sample piece,” said Kula, 29, who was hired by a website that specialized in office-based humor, which led to a gig with an improv troupe, which led to an agent and his current job, writing for “MADtv.”
“I always wondered if the guys at the engineering firm saw it,” Kula said. “I would love to know if they still talk about it.”