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

(Left to right) Former Fox News chief Roger Ailes in 2012; Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz in 2015; and former Enron Chief Executive Jeffrey Skilling in 2006.
Stephen Lovekin, Andrew Burton, Johnny Hanson/Getty Images
(Left to right) Former Fox News chief Roger Ailes in 2012; Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz in 2015; and former Enron Chief Executive Jeffrey Skilling in 2006.

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."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.
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