Dame Jenni Murray’s graceful exit from Women’s Hour yesterday reminds me of the times I’ve been asked to write or say a few words on the occasion of a departing colleague. It’s easy enough to do if you actually liked the person and thought they were good at their job. It’s so much harder if you are secretly glad to see the back of them or, even worse, have actually been the boss responsible for their departure.
“So how do you do a speech like that?” a colleague once asked me, “I mean, you must feel like a total hypocrite saying all those kind words in front of an office full of people with cake in their mouths.”
At that point I tapped the side of my nose, winked and began to impart my wisdom before he thought I was having an allergic reaction to the cake.
“It’s easy,” I said, “You talk about the role, rather than the person.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, instead of saying what a hard-working funny guy the person was, you talk about what’s needed in the job and people assume you’re talking about the person who’s leaving.”
“Give me an example.”
“OK. Suppose it’s the leaving do for Joe Bloggs and everyone knew he was a lazy, arrogant, conceited so-and-so. You begin your speech describing Joe’s job and the skills and dedication required for success.”
“Joe occupied a position of real importance here in the company. It’s a role that required long hours of hard work, infinite patience, a lot of humanity and real dedication. It’s no lie to say that it’s going to be hard to find Joe’s replacement.”
“But that sounds like praise.”
“Sounds like it, but it isn’t. And you can live with yourself afterwards and everyone can enjoy the cake and go home happy. No bad atmosphere.”
My colleague seemed suitably impressed with this gem of advice and I thought nothing more about the conversation until a year or so later when I was the one leaving and the same colleague had been called upon to say a few words about me.
“The role Jeff occupied,” he began…and I knew I was in for my comeuppance.
All of which brings me back to Jenni Murray and the kind words uttered about her by the outgoing Director General, Tony Hall.
“The airwaves wont be the same without her.” he is quoted as saying.
You can take that any way you like.