This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.
Abrupt departures by senior executives can be a real headache for communicators because the rumor mill will often go into a frenzy about the event. And rumors are usually worse than the truth.
When a sudden departure has occurred, the CEO should act immediately to fill the vacuum of information. If they don’t act quickly, the rumors will start flying. It is your job as communicator to advise the CEO or equivalent to fill the gap.
Most of the time, the reason for leaving is a major disagreement with policy decisions or disappointment with an executive appointment that threatens their own career path.
I was once involved in this type of situation. I joined a power utility which had a management restructure shortly after I arrived. As Public Affairs Manager I had the good fortune to be promoted to the executive committee, reporting directly to the CEO. But the HR Manager, who fondly thought he would be promoted to the executive committee with me reporting to him, suddenly found he had been left out in the cold – he would now report to a general manager, not the CEO, and was not on the executive committee. The result? The HR Manager was furious and resigned immediately after a shouting match with the CEO.
The rumor mill usually goes for the juiciest speculation – of an affair, hand in the till or some other spectacular misdeed. To minimize the rumors, the CEO should issue a short statement announcing the departure – an honest and straightforward statement.
To avoid any possible legal implications, most employers talk about the executive leaving to “pursue their own interests” or to “spend more time with their family.” This is usually a dishonest statement. If possible, the truth should be told, eg the executive disagreed with the direction or policies of the organization and had decided to move on by mutual agreement.
Executives seldom leave because of their dishonesty or through an affair with a staff member. A bland statement could be issued in these cases, unless they are famous, such as the problem at Boeing a few years ago when the CEO, who claimed to live by the firm’s values, was found to be having an affair with a staff member. Boeing featured in the news again when the company’s CEO was fired in December 2019 after mishandling an apology and matters relating to two Boeing 737 Max jet aircraft crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed a total of 346 passengers and crew.
When a bland statement is issued, the rumor mill will certainly get going, and so management should act as quickly as possible to announce a new appointment or restructure or new responsibilities for existing executives.
The announcement will put focus back on the organization rather than on the individual who has left. Most employees are not personally affected by the sudden departure of an executive, but they are certainly interested in how it might affect them. Therefore, quick action to fill a gap will minimize the nasty rumors that invariably circulate about a sudden executive departure.
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