One thing Aaron Crowe doesn't miss from his old job: "The sappy goodbye emails" that departing co-workers would blast to the entire company.
"I had no idea who many of these people were," says Mr. Crowe, now a freelance writer and editor in Concord, Calif. " 'I really enjoyed working with all of you' started sounding like a common note in a high-school yearbook: 'Have a great summer.' "
The farewell email: It's a chance for departing employees to have the last word at work—and for their colleagues to chuckle, gasp, roll their eyes or sigh wistfully, depending upon the message.
It can recap mission-critical accomplishments, thank pivotal colleagues, and even drop in a little zinger about the thin gruel served at staff meetings.
On the flip side, co-workers who are left behind comb cheerful text for signs of discontent. Colleagues gather in hallways to guess the circumstances behind the move. In a large corporate environment, sometimes a heartfelt farewell gets a response like, "Who the heck was that?"
Ultimately, a mass email can create mass confusion.
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At the law firm Alston & Bird, one departing associate baffled his colleagues by sending everyone a black-and-white photo of himself, with only his name and start and quit dates written beneath "as if it was a tombstone," says John E. Stephenson, a partner in Atlanta who has been keeping a "Dead Soldiers" file of his colleagues' goodbye notes for 27 years. "It caused a firestorm because people thought he had died." The associate had to follow up with another email saying, "I'm not dead. I'm sorry to have concerned so many of you," Mr. Stephenson says.
Jim Neill was known for humor and occasional profanity in his previous job as an assistant vice president of a Washington manufacturing industry group. Amid layoffs at his former employer right before Christmas in 2008, the office climate was gloomy. "You could feel the tension," he says. When Mr. Neill's own job fell under the ax, he says, he decided, "Oh, the hell with it. Let's try to make the best of it and make people laugh."
"Free food in the employee lounge!" was his subject line. "Now that I know I've got your attention," he continued, he said he was leaving, thanked everyone and added: "With a young family, I'm hunting for employment—but you'll be pleased to know I've also begun work on my long-delayed book and instructional DVD, 'Rhymes with Truck: How to Use Profanity in Every Sentence.' " He is now a vice president for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, Arlington, Va.
When Bruce Corwin left Credit Suisse in 2010 to become communications director of SparkPeople, a diet and fitness website, he wrote, "I'm especially looking forward to this job because my boss already loves me (my wife is president of the company), and she's unlikely to fire me as we would have to take our kids out of private schools." He mused, "I won't mind reporting to her because I already do." In addition to ending the 4½-hour round-trip commute required by the Credit Suisse job, he added, he hoped "to lose enough weight to fit back into my senior prom dress."
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Jason Shugars's farewell email announcing, "So long, suckers! I'm out!" caused a stir when it hit thousands of in-boxes at Google after he quit his job there in 2008. He recounted in the 660-word opus "how good this little ole place has been to little ole me," and retold such true stories as how he stole his boss's $8,000 leather couch to use in his own office and dressed up like Britney Spears to sing for co-workers at a sales conference.
Mr. Shugars apologized for spamming some of his co-workers. "If this reached you and you don't give a hoot that I'm leaving, sorry," he wrote, explaining that he didn't want to offend anyone by leaving them out. His former co-worker, Dirk Aguilar of San Francisco who is now running an energy management start-up, says the email went over well because it suited Google's casual culture. The timing helped, too: Mr. Shugars, now director of demand relations at PubMatic, a media technology company in Redwood City, Calif., made sure it arrived as dozens of friends gathered at a bar to bid him goodbye.
Some employers try to ban all personal email at work, but such policies are "almost never practical" because nearly everyone from the CEO on down in most companies uses the Internet for personal purposes, says Joe Beachboard, a Torrance, Calif., employment lawyer who represents employers.
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Some human-resource managers screen a departing employee's email "if there is any kind of red flag that the person might say something inappropriate," says Julie Redfield, a talent management consultant with PA Consulting Group, New York.
If someone is fired, most employers disable email access immediately and sometimes send a pre-emptive email explaining the company's position, Ms. Redfield says. "You can't have 500 people talking around a water cooler about why somebody left."
A goodbye email can have a similar effect online. Chris Kula's parody farewell email went viral when he posted it on his blog a few years ago:
"For nearly as long as I've worked here, I've hoped that I might one day leave this company," he began. "I have been fortunate enough to work with some absolutely interchangeable supervisors on a wide variety of seemingly identical projects—an invaluable lesson in overcoming daily tedium in overcoming daily tedium in overcoming daily tedium." Although the note was never sent to co-workers on the job that inspired it—a receptionist's position at a New York City engineering firm—it was picked up from the Internet by an employee at Ernst & Young's Dublin office, causing a ruckus. The employee later issued an apology, saying it was a joke, and that he held both the firm and his co-workers in high regard.
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For Mr. Kula, though, the parody helped him land the job he really wanted, as a comedy writer. He now works as a TV writer in Los Angeles.
Attorney Greg Evans wrote a satirical exit note to colleagues seven years ago after resigning from a law firm where he worked, joking that he "would rather be dressed up like a piñata and beaten" than stay. He bore no ill will toward his employer, he says. "I just wanted to say my piece, and I thought it was a funny way of saying it," says Mr. Evans, who has done stand-up comedy on the side. He was surprised when the email went viral, prompting hundreds of emails and voice mails, including a few job offers from other law firms, he says.
But he hasn't any regrets, he says. Writing it was "liberating" and got him moving to set up the solo practice he wanted, in Mableton, Ga., where he also has been appointed a part-time judge.