How To Write A Resignation Letter In The Middle Of A Scandal

Aug 19, 2016
Originally published on August 19, 2016 6:33 pm

Scandal? Juda Engelmayer's seen his share of corporate scandals: "Failures, lawsuits, arrest, financial breakdowns, tainted food."

All things he's handled as head of crisis communications for 5W Public Relations. It's no fun, he says, dethroning a titan over a big mistake.

"Trying to counsel a client who's done something wrong and trying to convince them that, A. they've done something wrong, and B. to come out and say it to the public that's loved them and adored them for a long time — not easy to do," he says.

When it comes to crafting a resignation letter, Engelmayer says the axed executive often can't say much. There are shareholders and potential lawsuits to consider.

When Fox News head Roger Ailes resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment last month, he talked of promoting female talent during his tenure at the news network.

When Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned as chair of the Democratic National Committee, there was no mention of the leaked staff emails backing Hillary Clinton that cost her the job.

Often, the less said the better — especially when there's a pending investigation, or emotions are running very high.

That's why so many end up saying something similar: "I want to spend time with my family."

"It's code for, 'I'm not gonna be around,' " Engelmayer says. "It's code for, 'Because of what's happening, not only am I leaving this company, I'm probably not going to be employed by another company for a long time. You're not gonna see me, you're not gonna see my face for a while.' "

In one classic example, Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling cited "personal reasons" for his abrupt resignation — which came just before the company filed for bankruptcy and he was indicted on 35 counts of fraud and other crimes.

The point of resigning amid scandal is to get out of the way, to try to stop the chatter. Many just end up prolonging the pain by neither resigning nor apologizing straight up.

Think of Bill Clinton's parsing of words about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Or, earlier this year, when Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley issued a perplexing quasi-apology after having an affair with his aide.

"I love many members of my staff, in fact, all of the members of my staff," Bentley said in a press conference. "Do I love some more than others? Absolutely."

So, is there anyone who can apologize and handle an ousting with aplomb?

A lot of people say Andrew Mason. He founded Groupon and took it public, but by March 2013, it faced accounting problems and cascading revenue and stock prices.

"I got fired and I went home and I sat on my couch and I wrote the letter," Mason says.

The letter opened with: "I'd like to spend more time with my family. Just kidding — I was fired today."

Mason says he cringes at most resignation letters.

"They often go to such great lengths to convince you that they weren't fired," Mason says. "The company will be beleaguered, and in the middle of an extremely high level of crisis, and they don't even mention that. It just struck me as so insincere, so I just didn't want to be that."

People embraced his unflinching approach — talking about missed financial expectations, his own accountability, and joking about shipping off to a fat farm. Based on the response, Mason thought maybe others would follow.

"For a while I was hoping that my resignation letter might catalyze a change in tone or approach, a broader change in approach, but it hasn't at all," he says.

Mason says he might have felt more pressure to be opaque about his leaving if he were under pressure to get a new job or to raise money for a new venture. But, he says, the letter was right for him.

"To lie about that would give me a sense of shame, and it was just the wrong way to end it," Mason says. "And I wanted to go out on a note that allowed me to be proud, regardless of how people might perceive it."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Donald Trump released a statement today saying his campaign chairman had resigned. Trump thanked Paul Manafort for his great work, called him a true professional, but did not say why Manafort was leaving. Yesterday, the Associated Press revealed that Manafort's lobbying firm had secretly done work for pro-Kremlin Ukrainian officials. Manafort has not released a statement or resignation letter. But if he does, there's a good chance that it won't say everything. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports resignation letters are often works of fiction, though not always.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Juda Engelmayer has seen his share of corporate scandals.

JUDA ENGELMAYER: Failures, lawsuits, arrests, financial breakdowns, tainted food.

NOGUCHI: All things he's handled as head of Crisis Communications for 5W Public Relations. It's no fun, he says, dethroning a Titan over a big mistake.

ENGELMAYER: Counseling a client who's done something wrong and trying to, A, convince them that they've done something wrong, B, telling them to come out and say it to the public that's loved and adored them for a long time - not easy to do.

NOGUCHI: Engelmayer says there are shareholders and potential lawsuits to consider. So, often, the less said, the better, especially when there's a pending investigation or emotions are running very high. And that's also why so many end up saying, I want to spend time with my family.

ENGELMAYER: It's code for, I'm not going to be around. It's code for, because of what's happening, not only am I leaving this company, but I'm most likely not going to be employed by another company for a long time. You're not going to see me. You're not going to see my face come up or my name come up for a while.

NOGUCHI: In one classic example, Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling cited personal reasons for his abrupt resignation months before the company filed bankruptcy. He was later convicted on 19 counts of fraud and other crimes.

The point of resigning amid scandal is to get out of the way, to try to stop the chatter. Many just end up prolonging the pain by neither resigning nor apologizing straight up.

Think of Bill Clinton's parsing of words about his affair with Monica Lewinsky or, earlier this year, when Alabama Governor Robert Bentley issued a perplexing statement after an affair with an aide was revealed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT BENTLEY: I love many members of my staff - in fact, all the members of my staff. Do I love more than I do others - than I do - you know, some more than others? Absolutely.

NOGUCHI: So is there anyone who can apologize and handle an ousting with aplomb? Andrew Mason gets props for his resignation style. Mason founded Groupon and took it public. But by March 2013, it faced cascading problems in its accounting, declining revenue and stock price.

ANDREW MASON: I got fired, and I went home and I sat on my couch, and I wrote the letter.

NOGUCHI: The letter opened with, I'd like to spend more time with my family - just kidding. I was fired today. Mason, now CEO of a walking-tour company called Detour, says he cringes at most resignation letters.

MASON: They often go to such great lengths to convince you that they weren't fired or that the company will be beleaguered and in the middle of an extremely-high level of crisis. And they don't even mention that. And it just struck me as so insincere, so I just didn't want to be that.

NOGUCHI: People embraced his unflinching approach - talking about missed financial expectations, his own accountability and joking about shipping off to a fat farm. Based on the response, Mason thought others might follow.

MASON: For a while, I was hoping that my resignation letter might catalyze a change in tone or approach, a broader change in approach, and it hasn't at all.

NOGUCHI: He says he might have felt more pressure to be more opaque if he'd been thinking about a new job or raising money for a new venture, but Mason says he wasn't.

MASON: To lie about that would give me a sense of shame. And it was just the wrong way to end it, and I wanted to go out on a note that allowed me to be proud, regardless of how people might perceive it.

NOGUCHI: After writing the letter, Mason says, he got off his couch and checked into a fat farm. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.