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A senior coworker who's been with the company for over 6 years, suddenly approached my desk, handed me their card with info and said, "It has been nice working with you, I told [top boss] that tomorrow will be my last day". It was out of the blue so all I could say was, "Thanks, nice working with you too", as they left.

I rarely interacted with them, but they strike me as an honest, no-nonsense, hard worker. It is unlikely they are getting fired; it is more likely that it is their personal choice to leave.

I guess I can say I am curious about what is causing them to leave. I can venture a few wild guesses, but all of them are just guesses.

My question is this: do I say more than I have already said? For example, do I talk to the coworker more to express any further sentiments or parting thoughts before they depart? Can I ask them about their choice/decision to leave? Can I talk to them to wish them luck in their future endeavors?

What I am trying to deal with for me personally is the question of "why they are leaving", as I don't have a clear answer. And how to deal with that personal to me question is likely the core of "my question" for the Stack Exchange crowd.

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    It would have been nice if some cultural info was added. Country, type of company etc. – Paul Palmpje Feb 26 at 20:02
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    You were lucky he even came around to say goodbye. In the last few places I've worked at, the first the team knew someone was leaving was when they didn't turn up for work on a Monday ! – Neil Feb 27 at 16:55
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    @Frank singular they. I guess you haven't been following meta for the last five months. ;-) Possibly similar in concept to Neil's (above) gender-neutral 'he' – mcalex Feb 28 at 3:45
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    @Frank "The singular they emerged by the 14th century, about a century after plural they. It has been commonly employed in everyday English ever since then" the word and its usage is even older than your attitude is – Aaron F Feb 28 at 9:29
  • "handed me their card with info". Well go and have a beer with the guy and ask. Simple as that. – dan-klasson Mar 3 at 20:54

11 Answers 11

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It's perfectly reasonable to say to someone "Sorry to hear you're leaving. What's next for you?" in an appropriate environment, like a private personal conversation. "What's next?", or "where's next?" are generally easier topics than "why" (as noted by Frank Hopkins in comments), but might serve as a segue to "why?"

Still, they might not want to answer, or they might not know what's next. If they don't have something lined up and if this is someone you'd be willing to recommend (and it sounds from your post that you would) you could offer your recommendation, which would probably be appreciated.

As the conversation goes along, asking more pointedly about why they're leaving might make sense, or they might volunteer their reasons. It's possible though that they'd like to keep their reasons quiet and wouldn't be open to sharing them with you. This conversation is likely easier if you're closer to the person leaving (doesn't sound like that's the case here).

Unless there's a specific reason why you need to know (thinking of leaving yourself etc.) I'd recommend a light touch, and the understanding that your curiosity might just go unsatisfied.

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    I'd add that typically the "where next" is a much easier topic than the "why". For the "why" I would a) only ask if I'm a bit closer to the colleague and b) make sure no other co-workers are around, in particular if interested in an honest answer and not just a deflective statement. (Feel free to incorporate if you agree - or not^^) – Frank Hopkins Feb 26 at 20:19
  • Phrasing like "can I ask what's next for you or it's completely fine if that's something you're not in a position to share yet?" might help because it makes it gives them an easier out to avoid the question if they can't/won't/don't want to say. – Zach Lipton Feb 27 at 5:02
  • @Frank Hopkins - I've edited the answer based on your suggestions, hopefully capturing your point. – Greg Feb 27 at 13:44
  • @Greg Sure, works out fine, nice first answer over here. And if you agree with the statement you can also remove the reference pointing out that it comes from me, makes the answer more readable imho - but also fine with me to leave the citation in, as you wish ;) See you around. – Frank Hopkins Feb 27 at 17:28
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You can, but bear in mind they might not want to tell you.

I'd say something along the lines of:

Hey. Sorry to hear you're leaving, I'm sure you'll be missed. It took me by surprise when you told me earlier, do you mind me asking why? Completely understand if you don't want to share, I was just curious.

Obviously change the wording depending on how close you are, but since you seem pretty sure it was their decision and not a firing, I don't see an issue.

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    Isn't it rather awkward to tell someone you don't want to talk about something? Doesn't it make things more awkward to say something like "I'd understand if you don't want to talk about it" (for something that isn't inherently a sensitive subject), as to imply it's something they may not want to talk about? – NotThatGuy Feb 26 at 14:31
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    @NotThatGuy I don't think so, especially if the person asking has already made it clear that they are sensitive to it – Gamora Feb 26 at 14:33
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    Well, he handed OP his contact info on the way out. To me that would be as if to say "I cannot tell you here and now but you should give me a call." – Fildor Feb 26 at 16:12
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I disagree with everyone else's perception here. This guy walked up to you and gave you his card. I think he WANTED you to ask. And I think he wanted to keep in touch. Whatever is "next for him" he wants you to know about it. Maybe he's starting his own company and has identified you as a person he'd like to bring on board. Maybe he's leaving on ethical grounds and he also thinks of you as honest and hardworking and thinks you ought to know about the unethical event. I think I'd try to have lunch with this guy.

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    Couldn't agree more. When my wife quit her last job, she couldn't warn her colleagues about the reasons, too without getting herself into legal trouble. So she asked in a private moment "Do you happen to have legal insurance? If I were you, I'd get one if not. *wink" (Arbeitsrechtschutzversicherung - don't know the word in english) So, I agree that handing over contact info should be a "hint". – Fildor Feb 26 at 16:09
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    I don't believe that giving contact information is an absolute invitation for a discussion about the reason for leaving. It could be just that the leaving employee is trying to build a network. – MaxW Feb 27 at 1:10
  • I'm confused by your assumption. If the person WANTED you to know why they are leaving so badly, why wouldn't they have just told you? – dwizum Feb 27 at 17:34
  • @dwizum If something touchy is going on, it might be bad just to be seen having conversations. And maybe it's not so much that they wanted you to know, but they are offering. No matter the situation, dirty secrets or network building, lunch is still the right move. – B. Goddard Feb 27 at 17:49
  • I guess that's definitely possible, but it still seems like a really specific and strong conclusion to draw from the details as presented. Again - if they'd wanted to have lunch and talk about things, why not just say, "hey let's make sure we have lunch soon." Let me clarify, I'm not trying to argue or disprove you, and I don't think your answer is inherently wrong - I just think it's really narrow. – dwizum Feb 27 at 18:00
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This strikes me as the kind of question where if you have to ask, you probably know the answer.

Let me illustrate: I've had a coworker who I knew pretty well walk up and tell me that tomorrow was their last day. I gasped, and reflexively asked what happened. We ended up getting lunch that day and spending the whole lunch our wading through the gory details of what was going on. I didn't even pause to think if I should ask, I knew the person well enough to know that they'd expect to share details with me.

In another case, I had a coworker whom I didn't know very well tell me that same thing. I smiled, wished them the best of luck, and shook their hand. A week later when they updated their LinkedIn profile with their new employer's name, I "liked" the update as a show of support for their transition.

In other words: there are circumstantial considerations, and I don't think there's a single right answer for all situations, but as a general guideline:

  • If you know the person really really well, you would probably not be surprised by their announcement because you'd already know enough about their life to know what's up. So there wouldn't even be a need to ask "what happened."
  • If you know them kinda well and would consider them close enough that you can judge their openness to a question like that, then proceed according to what makes sense.
  • If you really don't know them well at all, and don't think you can judge their openness to your prying question, it's probably best to "remain professional" and keep things pleasant and high level.
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    Agreed, it sounds to me like they don't really know this person that well and purely want to satisfy their own curiosity. If the person leaving wanted to share that information, they would likely have offered it. The fact that they didn't could just mean they don't think OP has a right to know, or it could be because it is uncomfortable for them to talk about. I honestly don't see any real benefit in asking, and worst case they get upset and potentially leave with a bad impression. – delinear Feb 25 at 16:01
  • Also, don't underestimate the value of office gossip, in these situations. I say that un-ironically: Assuming you don't know the co-worker that well, but still want to get the dirt on why they're leaving, your best option (read: least chance of being viewed as an impropriety) is probably to find out from someone else in the office who knows them better, and who has gotten the story through their personal interactions with the departing employee, rather than asking directly. – FeRD Feb 26 at 5:59
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    I'd like to disagree. Coworker (as OP writes) approached his desk, handed over his contact info while telling him, he'll be gone the next day. Yes, walls have ears. That's exactly why I think he did not tell OP more on the spot. But handing over contact info - to me - is a silent "call me!" – Fildor Feb 26 at 16:18
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    @delinear it does not necessarily have to be like that. It happens so often that people talk about themselves with the hope (but without the belief) that someone will care and ask, then nobody asks and they feel that nobody cares. I do not think that an almost automatic "Oh, did something happen?" can hurt, especially if this person is leaving anyway. Worst case, they give and evasive answer and everyone forgets about the incident. – wimi Feb 27 at 8:25
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Asking at the time would have been entirely reasonable in a polite way. Asking later if it isn't someone you'd often speak with is perhaps a little more awkward but you don't have much to lose since they won't be there in future!

Since they gave you their card, you might drop them an email outside of work, perhaps after their last day to wish them all the best and expressing surprise at the suddenness of the departure, ask if they don't mind sharing why they left?

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    This. Apparently he wanted to stay in touch by giving you the card. Nothing wrong with making the contact and casually ask. – KeepLearning Feb 26 at 22:22
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In Russian, there's a stock suffix phrase "... если не секрет" ("-- if that's not a secret") specifically for a case where you are asking a question that the other person may be unwilling to answer. In this case, the askee can rebuff the question with no moral implications by claiming that it's indeed a "secret" -- which would imply it's a "secret" from at least some of the people who can hear them at the moment.

A word-to-word translation in this case would be: "What happened? -- if that's not a secret."

I'm not aware of what the English equivalent is, if any. You can ask that at https://english.stackexchange.com/.

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"Is it appropriate?" Yes.

But don't pry past what they're comfortable with. That would be rude and no longer appropriate.

"Should I?" That depends.

At my previous job, I wanted to keep it to myself when I left. I told my manager that I would tell my scrum leader and a couple people on the team who needed to know for obvious workflow reasons, but that other than that I would like to leave quietly.

The grapevine ran wild, everyone ended up hearing about it, and I even had people from previous projects under a prior manager come track me down and ask where I was going, why, and other questions. Heck, there were some people I'd passed in the hall or who were at some of the same meetings but whom I didn't even really know who asked me about it. It was odd.

Someone overheard all the chatter about me leaving, complained to HR, who complained to my manager, who told me they were not letting me finish my 2 weeks because people were concerned I was advertising the fact I was leaving and where I was going. I reminded him I didn't want any of the attention, that it was the grapevine going wild and people coming to me. He said he didn't disagree but that it didn't matter, "Today's your last day."

In your case where they were leaving tomorrow anyway it's a bit different, but remember that bringing attention to the leaving can cause negative side effects. It might burn bridges for the person who might want to come back some day.

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  • And I hope they paid you for your two weeks. – J.Hirsch Feb 26 at 19:26
  • In this situation it would have been appropriate for your manager to inform the people who needed to know. This made your position a bit hard to handle. But no matter what, you can't prove you did not inform anyone, In my jurisdiction (Netherlands) they'd have to pay you to formal termination anyway. Unless they can prove you were very seriously in the wrong. – Paul Palmpje Feb 26 at 20:02
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    @J.Hirsch Actually, they didn't want to at first. They tried to say my vacation time should cover it. But I brought up that company policy says I get my vacation time in cash when I leave and that I had intended to work out the 2 weeks and cash out the vacation time. In the end, I got paid for the 2 weeks and got my vacation time paid out, so I got a "free" week and a half vacation. I bet they fool a lot of people into using their vacation time the way they tried to get me to. – Aaron Feb 26 at 20:43
  • @PaulPalmpje At that place managers have very little interaction with the teams and expected an amount of self-management as far as day to day and technical stuff, so they often don't know themselves what people would need to be told. I would had to have told my manager who he needed to tell and what they needed to know in my absence. Maybe that would have been a good way to go, "And I would like to leave quietly. Here are the people who you will need to notify, and here's what they are likely to need in my absence." Good idea Paul. – Aaron Feb 26 at 20:49
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    @Aaron yes, that would have made for some interesting employment law. thebalancecareers.com/… – J.Hirsch Feb 26 at 21:07
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I've had this happen a few times--it probably isn't appropriate to discuss in the office.

I suggest that if you are really interested and willing to spend a little time, you might ask them if you can buy them lunch or a drink after work (There may already be a group going out for drinks after work). When you are undergoing a transition like that it can be really nice to have someone to vent to.

If you are just looking for a quick answer--some juicy company gossip, I'd probably just say "Sorry to see you go" and wait for the rumors to come around next week :)

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handed me their card with info and said, "It has been nice working with you, I told [top boss] that tomorrow will be my last day". It was out of the blue so all I could say was, "Thanks, nice working with you too", as they left.

From what I can gather you feel that because they gave you a card, there is some sort of motivation or clue that the individual wanted you to contact them?

My advice is if there is a email address, send an email to tell them good luck, and give your POC information in case they want to reach out to you. Usually name, number, and email are good enough.

It's merely a professional courtesy to leave your information as you depart. You can ask to use it as a reference or vice versa for them. It is not meant as a gossip or figure out why they left. Since he gave you his card, with what I think is his outside office POC information, he feels comfortable enough for you to contact him or vice versa in case you need a reference or general professional contact. It may even be a lead to find a new job if you are searching in the future. Just a reach out and he may be able to submit your resume internally for a higher consideration for a position.

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I'll add a different answer in here, based on a similar event that happened to me a while ago.

TL;DR;

If you don't feel like asking him directly, you could ask to add him on social networks (LinkedIn, for instance) to find out.

It worked for me when a friend I knew for a while (we went to the same university, but lost contact right after) and around 10 later we ended up working for the same company. Around 6 months after I joined, he told me he was leaving next week.

Since I felt I could ask the more personal question "Where are you going to work, then?" his answer was: "I'm still working here and I don't feel it's time to share where I'm going to". I thought my curiosity would remain unanswered, but a few weeks after he left, LinkedIn feed told me where he went.

So, since he gave you his card, you could search for his name and add him as a contact on LinkedIn. If he does not feel like sharing more information with oyou, he'll simply dismiss your request. Based on my experience with former colleagues in companies I worked for, that's a common practice.

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In one of the organizations I had worked in the past, there was a tradition that people followed where on their last working day, they would send an email to everyone they met or even said a hello to using their work email id saying good bye and including their personal email id and/or phone number. The people closest to them would already know and for the others it was merely information and most would simply ignore it and the person who sent the email would not expect more than a "Good luck" as response.

Sharing their email or contact number does not necessary mean they want to really be in touch with you, especially since you rarely interacted with him. So, I would not read much into it and leave it at that.

You mentioned you are curious. I am also a curious person and even with my closest friends, when they mention something like this, I just say, "Oh! I did not expect that. Well, good luck anyway. Stay in touch!". Those who want to share more, do. Those who don't want to, don't. I just think it is not my business to get into why they did anything. While your intentions are well placed, again, it is their choice. So, respect it and get back to work.

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