The Reluctant Party Planner

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When a member of your team has to say goodbye, who bears the responsibility for sending them off in style?

Dear Director: Our ED has been a revolving door of nurses and doctors leaving and coming recently. As a result, I’ve found myself consumed with the task of planning constant going away events. Is this something that should be handled by a medical director? And how do I send my people off well?

I recently visited the ED where I served as chairman five years ago and of the 15 people working, all but two were new. There is often tremendous turnover in our departments and I suspect this will only increase as more millennials join the workforce. While the job description as an ED chair continues to surprise me (most recently: picking out wall paint color and waiting room chair fabrics), you probably don’t have time to be the social chair.


Many businesses have formal going away events for their employees. When my wife left one organization within NASA for another, there was a dinner complete with speeches and parting gifts related to the project she had worked on for the past several years. Hospitals do not typically do that. Maybe it’s because we often have mixed emotions when our docs leave the group. Honestly, sometimes we’re happy they’re leaving, particularly if they’re an underperformer or generate a lot of issues. More often, however, I am stressing over their departure as it will lead to more work and cost to the group—recruitment, hiring, orientation, likely combined with being short staffed for a few months, where everyone has to do more shifts and has added stress. For either of these groups, the last thing I want to do is plan a goodbye party. On rare occasions, a doc or a senior nurse is retiring, and I’m truly happy for them.

Leadership and management experts will tell you that it’s important for a person and a group to have closure. Think about the end of the school year parties or end of season soccer or baseball parties your kids (or you) have attended. Some pizza and cake, coupled with discussion about the past year and the hopes of the next season can go a long way.

In my opinion, there is no greater team in the hospital than the one working in the ED. Organization and leadership expert Cindy Zook describes teams as having a life cycle and it’s through this life cycle that change occurs on the individual, team, and organizational levels. The life cycle has many steps ranging from creating a vision to maintaining productivity. But it also includes endings. As a leader, my opinions of someone leaving may not be the same as how they’re viewed by the team. Dr. T (for trouble) was a former chief resident that I was thrilled to have join my team. But after three years, numerous patient complaints (including one that led to a state investigation), a few unfortunate bad outcomes and below average metrics, I wasn’t sad to see him leave. However, his colleagues and the nursing staff loved Dr. T. If someone posted a shift because they needed a night off, he was happy to take it. He also responded quickly when the nurses said they needed a doctor in the room. He was a great teammate and someone the team wanted to give a warm send off to. The team and Dr. T needed closure.


Effective endings involve three things—celebration, cleansing, and building on our core values, says Ms. Zook. Everyone has great stuff to celebrate. We save lives, get thank you notes from patients, and praise when we help a colleague. We need to remember these but we can’t dwell on them. Secondly, it’s important to let go of our baggage. These are the frustrations and disappointments that need to be bundled up and forgotten about in order to move forward. While Dr. T will learn from the complaints that were generated against him, he certainly won’t benefit by thinking about them on a regular basis. They need to be cast away. Finally, there are our core values that become part of our foundation that we want to take into the future with us. A going away party lets the team help the individual reflect on the past, and then let go of the past so they can be unencumbered for the next phase of new beginnings.

How To Do It
From an employer or medical director’s point of view, there should be consistency in how these events are handled. Your group may have a policy that financially supports retirement parties but doesn’t financially support all docs leaving. There could even be a middle ground for someone who has been there more than five years. Regardless, I think if the medical director is getting involved, it’s important to not play favorites and do something consistent for each person leaving. While I consistently avoid a formal role in these events, a co-worker has no obligation to follow any rules.

Going away parties are usually best planned by a friendly co-worker. Of course, it starts with asking the person who’s leaving what they want. I find these events usually split into two categories. Typically, a card, pizza, and cake in the break room during the last shift where everyone working that day chips in some money so they can have some lunch. This may also involve a signed bedpan or urinal as a souvenir of their time in the hospital. Many medical directors I know will often chip in or pay for the pizza or a cake for these break room parties if the employee is leaving on good terms and has some sort of minimal tenure (at least 1-2 years). Of course, the medical director needs to maintain some consistency if this is their contribution. Option 2 is when a core group of the doc’s friends pick a night for a happy hour and then post a sign and encourage everyone to meet them. This option is lots of fun, but a tale of caution since this will likely be a doc and nurse crowd, it’s still considered a work event, so be on your professional behavior. Of course, Option 3 is no party at all. Obviously, this could apply to the doc who hasn’t been in the department long and hasn’t made many friends. Ironically, in my own site, we’ve been criticized by having some of our best people leave to go to administrative positions within our company at other hospitals so some docs have quietly disappeared to avoid adding fuel on the complaint fire that another doc is leaving to move up the administrative ladder.

Sometimes You Do Have To Be The Social Chair
The social chair hat sometimes has to be worn. The ED director should be one of the ringleaders for an annual picnic or holiday party. And of course, if you are celebrating achieving a performance metric in your ED, the director also has to be perceived as leading the celebration. These are important, big picture, team building events and require the medical director’s involvement. While you can likely find volunteers to locate a venue or a band, your contributions may include a small speech at the event, financial contributions (from your budget or getting all the docs to pitch in for an annual party), assisting in deciding the formality of the venue based on the reason for the celebration, or even picking a date to maximize attendance, your presence and leadership add importance to the event.


I wear a lot of hats at work, but social director is generally not one of them. Some sort of going away event is good for the individual and the group to obtain closure and these may be best planned by a friend of the doc who’s leaving. However, be consistent with your involvement and follow your group’s policy. Just because someone’s departure may be an administrative headache for you doesn’t mean the team doesn’t want to celebrate their new beginning. Often these “parties” can occur in the break room during the doc’s last shift and are part of the workday, where people can wish them luck before going back to their patients. For someone who’s retiring or has been a major contributor to your practice, consider a more formal affair.


EXECUTIVE EDITOR Dr. Silverman is Chair of Emergency Medicine at VHC Health. He also taught a leadership development course for over a decade. Dr. Silverman’s practical wisdom is available in an easy-to-use reference guide, available on Amazon. Follow on Twitter @drmikesilverman

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