What happened to Sam?

After inquiring about an employee who always assisted you, have you ever been told the person was “no longer with us”?

From feeling somewhat flustered to utterly shocked by news you never expected, you might have considered a range of fleeting possibilities: “Sam” got fired, quit on bad terms, went to work for a competitor, pursued an opportunity in a new field, faced a personal crisis, or died. In turn, whether you learned the reason or gained no other information, the ensuing conversation perhaps left you reassured or unsettled about what would happen next.

Maybe you had no choice but to let someone else serve you. Maybe you got used to dealing with Sam’s replacement. Maybe you decided to move on since Sam was no longer there.

Privacy, legal implications and many other factors influence what can or should be said concerning an individual who is no longer part of an organization. However, no matter the circumstances, those initial messages—the words and their delivery—readily set the tone for the relationship going forward.

How should employers, managers, and other members of an organization address the ghost in the room?

If Sam Left on Unpleasant Terms: If Sam and the employer parted on unpleasant terms for any reason, those who remain with the organization could harbor negative feelings about Sam. Alternatively, some could side with Sam and feel bitter towards those responsible for the separation. Customers, having their own experiences, could think the organization just lost its best asset.

When Addressing the Ghost

Unflattering comments and insinuations about Sam should be withheld. Fabricating the reason is another mistake. The truth always surfaces, so saying I don’t have any information for you is better than lying or speaking disparagingly. Whether going into specific details or hinting at the possibilities, a discussion about someone who is not present is gossiping. Such talk, in fact, often backfires, casting a negative light on any who chime in and the organization itself. Even if the customer expresses that Sam’s departure is a plus, the less said, the better.

If Sam Left on Positive Terms: If Sam and the employer parted on positive terms, the primary reason or specific details could entail personal matters that would be inappropriate to discuss.

When Addressing the Ghost

Again, this is not the time to gossip. Detailed commentary about Sam’s circumstances should be prevented. Whether wonderful for Sam or not, the situation should not become a hot topic of conversation, analyzed in depth with an array of people. Even positive words about Sam’s contributions and character should be spoken with care. Quite commonly, talk that begins with accolades quickly shifts to negative and speculative speech:

- Do you think Sam is being somewhat foolhardy in leaving this good career to launch that new business?

- How is Sam’s family taking this?

- I always liked Sam but look forward to assistance from someone with younger, fresher perspectives.

If Sam Left for Any Reason: As the significance of Sam's role and involvement with customers increase, addressing the ghost in the room becomes all the more necessary. Pretending as if Sam never existed or dealing with the ghost in a cavalier manner can raise suspicion and distrust as well as conjure bad feelings that haunt dealings going forward.

When Addressing the Ghost

- Besides being the appropriate and appreciated thing to do, communicating Sam’s departure proactively (as soon as possible) in a written correspondence, by phone, or in person can minimize confusion and emotional upset, while preventing customers from deciding to leave because Sam left.

- The person chosen to break the news, such as the organization’s top person, Sam’s supervisor, or Sam’s replacement, often matters as much as the information shared.

- Handling internal communications in a straightforward manner allows members of the organization to process the news and gain clarity about what they should or should not communicate externally in their role as representatives.

- Creating an environment in which personnel feel valued and connected makes them more protective of the team and less likely to air dirty laundry.

- Focusing on an optimistic future, such as by introducing who is taking over and describing how the quality of service will continue and possibly improve, allays customers’ concerns by demonstrating that they are in good hands and assures the internal team by conveying that a plan to succeed without Sam is in place.

People naturally resist change, yet every single person has an expiration date. At some point, Sam and all the rest of us will one day be gone. 

What would you want people to say about you?

What would your former colleagues want you to say about them?

My best to you,

Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady

Thoughts or questions? Please contact Sallie Boyles, owner of Write Lady Inc., to exchange ideas about effective communications and gain from professional writing and editing services. Receive monthly tips and insights by subscribing at www.writelady.com.