“Effective immediately, John Smith has resigned to pursue other opportunities.”
No doubt your organization has its own version of this email. (Fun fact, at a previous employer we called it the POO message for someone who was said to be "Pursuing Other Opportunities.") In fact, if you work in HR, odds are pretty good that you've sent this email yourself more than once. It’s typically sent when your company doesn’t really want to get in to the details as to why someone is no longer with the company. There are lots of reasons that people leave the company and you’d rather not go in to it, but the most important is when you've finally fired someone for harassment.
You are lying to your employees when you send this email. Stop doing that.
I recently gave a talk at a SHRM conference on harassment and when I suggested that we stop sending these emails, an audible gasp when up. We in HR like to say we’re all about transparency (“it’s even in our company values!” we say), and yet, when it really counts, we revert to old patterns and the worst part is, we’re protecting the people who don’t deserve protecting.
After the gasp at that conference, someone asked “So what do we send instead? We’re not going to send out all the sordid details of an investigation.” Of course not. But we can certainly say “John Smith has been terminated, effectively immediately.” I've done it. And we can also include a message about how providing safe environments is our top priority. I've done this too. You don’t have to go in to details but people will certainly connect the dots and that's what matters most.
Want an example of real transparency? This past week, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings fired his top communications executive for using the n-word repeatedly. (You've been around long enough to know I can't make this shit up.) But in his memo to employees, he does include all the sordid details of the investigation, and I applaud him for it. (It really is worth reading. Check it out at the link above.) For the rest of us, covering up and hiding behind the lawyers only protects the people who don’t deserve protecting.
How else will your employees know if you're actually dealing with harassment? How else will they know to trust you to do something about it when it inevitably happens again?
No more keeping secrets in the name of "confidentiality". It starts with a simple change: let’s stop lying with our termination emails and start telling more of the truth.