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Is this something that people have struggled with in the past? I find that when you look at a card and everyone is writing the same thing, or someone who knows the person well writes something very fitting and personal, it always makes the next person's job that much more difficult.

Is there something that you have used in the past that is both simple and not too over the top, especially when you don't know the person very well?

  • 1
    How much do you have to write? A few words like "Best wishes!" or "You'll be missed!"? A sentence? Several sentences? – David Thornley Nov 26 '18 at 21:53
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In Japan, people change departments quite often, and each time you have to write a farewell message for the people who leave, so you get in to the habit of writing these sorts of cards. After seeing these things from hundreds of people (and having received them myself several times), the 'safest' pattern I see is:

  1. Express your gratitude for having had the chance to work with the person
  2. Point out a specific instance you appreciated them
  3. Wish them the best of luck on their future adventures

Thanks for working together

General gratitude is very straightforward, doesn't require any specific knowledge, and it is a nice positive message. You can go at it from several different angles, but at the end of the day you just want to make sure it is positive and actually reflects what the person did. For instance:

It's been a pleasure working with you on Project X over the last Y months -- the experience and skills you brought to the team made the project run more smoothly.

Feel free to comment on any general positive trait from skills, to experience, to positive attitude -- whatever fits best.

Specific Thanks

Even if you don't know the person well, you probably wouldn't be invited to write something on a card if you had never interacted with them at all. This doesn't need to be work-related, it can be anything positive and personal. For instance:

While it was a great experience working with you, I'll especially miss your restaurant recommendations -- the Thai place you recommended has been a hit with everyone I've taken there, and makes me look like I know more about food than I do!

Of course, it could also be work-related, for instance:

I really wanted to thank you for that time you helped me with that pesky bug I was struggling with. Thanks to your help teaching me how to debug that part of the legacy code, I've been able to lessen my daily frustration, and am grateful you took the time to teach me how to do that on my own.

The goal is just to point out that you have some personal positive experience with the person, and letting them know that it was appreciated (even if you didn't say much but 'thanks' at the time). Everyone loves feeling appreciated.

Wish them luck

Finally, you want to wish them the best of luck on their transfer/new job/change in careers/whatever. No need to be over the top, just a simple well-intentioned "Good luck!" will work, for instance:

I wish you the best in finding even more success in your next position. From working with you here, I am sure you will be a great fit. The world is a small place, and I hope that we get the chance to work together again in the future.

If they are leaving the job for something entirely different (stay-at-home parent, going back to school, starting their own business, etc.), wish them the best of luck in the change of pace, or anything that is positive and says, "Things change, but don't worry, you'll do great!"

Things not to do

No matter what you do, try to avoid the following pitfalls:

  1. Don't be negative
  2. Don't try to convince them to stay, or indicate that they made the wrong decision
  3. Don't be insincere

The person will likely read the card once or twice, and just wants to come away feeling good. You just want them to come away with a smile, so there's no need to be particularly profound on the card. Even if you know the person very well, the farewell card isn't the right place for honest feedback or oversharing, as other coworkers will likely read what you wrote, and if you're that close you can share the same info over a beer without any of the problems writing it down on a card may bring.

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@Jmac's answer is great for when there's plenty of room to sign, but here's a note for when the card may be going around to a lot of people and you don't know the person well - keep it short, e.g.

  • "Good luck - (signature)"
  • "Best wishes - (signature)" (original attribution to Dan Pichelman in the comments)

Don't steal loads of space when you don't know them all that well and others will need the room to write on! :)

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    I know that short and sweet is a good rule of thumb, but if that's what everyone is writing then it seems to be 'inking without thinking'... – Michael Lai Jun 30 '14 at 22:31
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For people I don't know that well, I typically just sign my name without a message. But that's something that works for my personality. Results may vary.

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Unlike others here, I am not afraid to say “I’m sorry, but I don’t know him/her well enough to sign the card”.

That’s often the case, as I have I have been freelance these past *cough* decades, in 15+ countries on three continents. I see a lot of people come & go, and they see me come & go.

That being said, I do have a collection of leaving cards, even gifts, and I will occasionally stumble across them when tidying at home. When I do, some names make me nostalgic and think of happy times together, which generally prompts me to write an email. And some just make me think “who on earth was that?”.

Personally, I don’t want to fall into the latter category and avoid it by not signing cards for people whom I barely know (YMMV).

To put it in perspective, my favo(u)rite leaving gift, which still gets used often, decades later, is a tankard engraved with the signatures of colleagues (friends). I can still remember every one, their face, voice, mannerisms and good times together. An unrecognized signature would ruin that for me. A card isn’t quite a tankard, but maybe it deserves similar consideration before deciding to sign?

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