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Garden leave - one nasty clause I’ll never include in a contract again

Maybe you never really learn the real meaning of a term until you live it. If you’re a senior executive or founder, especially in the UK, in all likelihood your employment contract includes a garden leave clause.

This clause allows the employer to exclude an employee from their workplace during their notice period, regardless of who gave notice to the other. In an executive’s case, the notice period can often be 3 to 6 months, and garden/gardening leave can be imposed at any time.

If I ever gave it any thought at all when I drew up the company’s standard employment contracts, and when I signed my own, I probably thought as most people do - wow, three months paid gardening. What’s not to like about that?

But it turns out there is a sting in the tail. One that can have deeply distressing consequences for those who find themselves experiencing this unique form of employer enforced isolation.

Basically, gardening leave completely cuts you off from the people you need most, at the very moment you need them most. Colleagues are out of bounds - and for many of us, our colleague group and friends group are mostly the same people. The suppliers, clients, and acquaintances you have spent months or years building relationships with are suddenly off limits too.

And chances are you will never get to say goodbye, never get to say thank you, and never to get any control over your own exit story or how it is conveyed to those you care about.

From an employer perspective it makes some sense, as Shoosmaiths explain (just a little too enthusiastically for my taste):

“Garden leave clauses typically also prevent an employee from having any contact with colleagues or customers whilst expressly preserving the employee's obligations of confidentiality and fidelity to the employer. This makes it an excellent business protection tool.

Garden leave is not the same as suspension and there is no need for there to have been any wrongdoing for an employer to place an individual on garden leave...

While the employee is out of the business, they remain under the direction of the employer; consequently the employer can still oblige the individual to assist with any unexpected event of which they have knowledge.”

From an employer perspective it’s a bit of a “have your cake and eat it too” clause to apply when there has been no employee wrong-doing. After all, there are plenty of other faster termination routes when there is wrong-doing involved. Whereas, with garden leave the employee is out, isolated, but still available and at your command.

But still, the employee is being paid - they may get a little stir-crazy, but how can bad can it really be? Well it is the consistently painful answers I have had to that question that have made me decide I will never include this clause in any employee’s contract again. Nor will I sign a contract containing it.

How gardening leave feels

In order to understand how garden leave feels, and how people cope, I have recently spoken to a number of people who have experienced it. Some of them founded or led the companies in question, others were senior executives leaving in a variety of situations from redundancy, poor health, post maternity leave, interpersonal conflict, to simple resignation. (I did not speak to people who had gotten new jobs and were then put on gardening leave - I was interested only in those who had nothing lined up, as this was the particular stress point I wanted to better understand).

What they had in common, even when talking about an experience from a long while back, was intense sense of loss. It was also very clear that most people felt garden leave was a punishment, not a benefit, usually one sprung on them quite suddenly. The new found time did nothing to offset, and if anything increased, these typical responses:

  • Grief and loss I think it is fair to say, and perfectly understandable when so many of us are completely inextricably linked with our professional selves, that people on garden leave were mourning the working identity they had. They typically reported a loss of self-meaning and confidence. And also regret at the loss of the dopamine hits and endorphin rushes that come from the constant decisions, triumphs, disasters, delights, interruptions and moments of intense creativity and problem solving.

  • Overpowering isolation Garden leave is a pretty unsubtle form of rejection. Researchers have found that rejection, combined with loneliness is a particularly toxic combination. People really feel the loss of contact, especially with colleagues but also with clients and the business world generally. Even those who experienced this many years ago expressed their sadness and shock at never getting the chance to say goodbye.

  • Sensitivity to the reputational implications, and fear for the future Although gardening leave is almost always used in situations of no wrong-doing, people were acutely aware of the stigma and spoke of frustration at not being able to tell their story. There was also a recurring fear from the individual that they will never match these achievements and the intense highs that go with them, ever again.

  • Betrayal of trust I have yet to speak to anyone put on garden leave who liked that company or the decision makers involved better for it. This is an important one for me. If you’re not going to enforce it, what place does it have in a contract. If you are going to enforce it, what does signal does that give to the employees left behind?

  • Distress at an enforced change of pace The sudden absence of emails, calls, and a frenetic pace of work was incredibly hard to deal with for all. As a founder and CEO myself, I put almost 20,000 hours of work into the company, and being full on 7 days a week, every week becomes normal, though not necessarily admirable. There is a significant amount of work you must need to do on rebuilding yourself when that all suddenly stops.

How people cope

I think it is fair to say the people furthest from it, who have perhaps worked with coaches and have come successfully out the other side, had the best advice on coping. Those currently in it were understandably far more preoccupied by an overwhelming fear for the future, and a raw sense of loss.

These are some of the tips people offered on managing garden leave, rather than being managed by it:

  • Being organised and scheduled, treating garden leave it as a project in its own right, with tasks and deadlines

  • Coaching others through it (when the wounds have healed)

  • “I’ll show you” - oh yes, there are certainly some for whom revenge was definitely best served cold, or who made garden leave into a competitive sport to excel at

  • Physically recharge - let yourself sleep if you need to sleep. Take a guilt-free break

  • Don't try and job hunt - do nothing but drink coffee, read the paper and chill out. Because this is a rare opportunity that happens once or twice in your whole career - try and give yourself permission to be OK with it

  • Avoid too much networking with your current group, and instead looking at a completely new network or group (for example a new hobby)

From my admittedly biased perspective, the punishment factor of gardening leave, and the psychological pressure of peer isolation, means it has no place in a company that aims for a respectful values based culture. That’s why I will never use or sign the clause again.

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