Groupon CEO's Departure Memo: Watch What You Say, Even If You Say It Nicely

| William A. Schreiner, Jr.


In Latin, it’s “Finis Coronat Opus”: the finish crowns the work.  It’s a reminder that when you’re leaving a job, it’s important to exit with the same grace, charm, and respect for your colleagues and the business’s stakeholders that helped get you the job in the first place.

You can also talk about Battletoads, which Groupon’s CEO Andrew Mason did in a memo he sent to the company’s employees last Friday, shortly after he was fired by Groupon’s board. 

You should, however, be careful what you say. 

Our core focus at SuitsbySuits are the disputes between a company and its executives – along with ways to avoid those disputes.  Those disputes involve employment contracts, severance payments, non-compete agreements, wrongful termination, allegations of discrimination, litigation, discovery, indemnification, insurance and more – and we write about all of those things.  It’s important to remember, though, that in the middle of all of them lies the actual moment of separation between an executive and her company. 

Mason’s memo to his employees – three parts good wishes and bonhomie, two parts humor, and one part acceptance of blame for the current lackluster state of Groupon – is one example of how to manage the moment of separation.  In what the Washington Post holds up as an example of “honesty and authenticity,” Mason begins by acknowledging he was fired by the Board because of Groupon’s “material weakness” in missing financial expectations, holds himself accountable for that, and then inspires his now-former colleagues to retake the heights: “You are doing amazing things at Groupon, and you deserve the outside world to give you a second chance.  I’m getting in the way of that.” 

He also makes an analogy to something called Battletoads, which we’re far too old to fully understand.  But surely it’s a reference Groupon’s team of younger-ish employees will get. 

What matters as much as how the departing executive says it, however, is exactly what he or she says.  In Mason’s memo, he makes some substantial admissions: such as his regret “that I let a lack of data override my intuition on what’s best for our customers.”  For most executives, admissions like this one could have a significant impact on issues that come up as a result of his firing – litigation over severance, wrongful termination, or recovery of compensation under Dodd-Frank, for example.  In Andrew Mason’s case, his entire severance package is $378.36 – yes, $378.36, or one-half of his annual salary of $756.72.  He does, however, hold a significant amount of Groupon’s stock. 

So while the spirit of Mason’s departure memo can teach us something about how to “exit gracefully,” executives putting pen-to-paper to write a similar memo should consider discussing the substance of their message with outside counsel to weigh the possible impact of their words.