Say 'I quit' with the perfect resignation

Who said this: "It has been a very long journey. Not at every stage of the way an easy one, although it has been tremendous fun"?

Nigel Farage? David Cameron? Boris Johnson? Or Chris Evans?

Last week, the Radio Times ran a quiz. It picked eight sentences from the resignation announcements of the four men and asked readers who said what.

It should have been a doddle, given how distinctive the voices of the four usually are: a regular bloke; a standard-issue Etonian; an erudite clown Etonian; and a cheeky son of a bookie. Their resignations were also quite different - one was resigning after six years running the country, another after six weeks presenting a TV show about cars. And two resigned having failed; two having succeeded.

Yet when it came to quitting they all said the same things. Even though I had read or listened agog to all their statements at the time, I failed hopelessly at the game. I didn't even pick Mr Farage as the speaker of the above words, and overall scored a pathetic three out of eight.

The cliches of resignation are now so ubiquitous that Roy Hodgson, who had only five minutes in a tunnel in France to write his resignation statement, unthinkingly plumped for all of them.

The first is always to use travel metaphors. "It's been a fantastic journey," he said of his ignominious ride. The second is never admit to having cocked anything up and never to say sorry. Instead, you must always pat yourself on the back. "I'm actually proud of the work my coaching staff and I have achieved," said the failed England football manager.

Next, you thank whoever you can think of and, having done that, pledge undying allegiance to whatever it is you've worked for. Even Mr Evans said he would do all he could "to help the cause", which seemed a little far-fetched for Top Gear.

Finally, you never say the word "resign", let alone "quit". Even "step down" has become a little too close to the truth. Instead, you refer to what you are doing as "stepping aside" - no matter how precipitous the decline in front of you appears.

I've been wondering whether there is a better, more honest way in which to quit. As a first step I've googled "best resignation letter" and almost the first thing that came up was a cake. In 2013, a man announced his departure to the Stansted airport border force in icing. This is charming; the trouble with this is it works only if, like the man in question, you are quitting to pursue a future in novelty cakes.

A resignation should offer a rare chance to say something true. Everyone is listening. And because you are no longer so beholden to the person who has been paying you/watched you/voted for you, you can say what you like.

Every now and again, someone decides to do just that. There was the "muppets" letter from Mr Greg Smith in The New York Times as he left Goldman Sachs. There was the "we are only in it for the money" letter in the Financial Times by fund manager Andrew Lahde.

Both were savage, both were gifts to journalists, and both said some things that were true - that the culture at Goldman isn't great and that the sharp end of capitalism isn't great either. Even so, both left a bad taste in the mouth, making their authors seem less brave than bad mannered.

Superficially less rude was the long farewell letter sent by Mr Patrick Pichette of Google last year, who quit his post as chief financial officer for "a perfectly fine mid-life crisis full of bliss and beauty". Yet this was not only emotionally incontinent, but also insulting to those who didn't have a US$5.2 million (S$7 million) salary to splurge on an endless family holiday around the world.

A resignation statement is not a time for truth; it is a time for politeness and for causing minimum upset - which may mean some version of the standard cliches may be best after all.

The two choices that remain are: With or without emotion? And short or long?

In general, I'm in favour of the lip remaining as stiff as possible at work. Being professional means comporting oneself with dignity. And that means, above all, not blubbing when anything goes wrong. However, Mr Cameron has proved that a minor quaver in the voice when you leave can be a good thing. It makes people - even those who are spitting blood over what you've done - somewhat better disposed towards you, if only for a minute or two.

On long versus short, there can be no debate. A resignation statement can't be too short, which means Twitter is the perfect place to do it.

Mr Evans tweeted: "Stepping down from Top Gear. Gave it my best shot but sometimes that's not enough. The team are beyond brilliant, I wish them all the best."

It was OK, but can be improved on. My favourite Twitter resignation comes from Mr Jimi Matthews, who left as acting head of a South African broadcaster last month. It simply said: "I have quit the SABC."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2016, with the headline 'Say 'I quit' with the perfect resignation'. Print Edition | Subscribe