When an employee quits and you didn’t see it coming
It’s Friday afternoon and one of your employees asks for a private meeting. Before you even close the door, she tells you she’s found another job and is leaving the company. Once you get over the shock, how should you respond? How do you cover her responsibilities? And how do you make sure that the rest of your team isn’t overburdened when she leaves?
What the Experts Say
Unexpected resignations present big challenges for leaders, especially those unaccustomed to dealing with them. “It’s probably a frustration you haven’t had for a while — and if you’re a relatively new manager, you might not have ever experienced this before,” says Priscilla Claman, the president of Career Strategies, a Boston-based consulting firm and a contributor to the HBR Guide to Getting the Right Job.
Abrupt employee departures are especially hard on the psyche. If you’ve grown to really rely on that person, “you may feel deserted and alone,” says Anat Lechner, a clinical associate professor of management and organizations at NYU Stern. Here are some tips to help you manage the separation and make the transition as smooth as possible.
Know the protocol
It’s important to first understand your company’s HR procedures for handling these situations. At some organizations, policy dictates that the moment a person offers a resignation, “you cut their employee ID card in half, call security, and escort them out of the office,” says Claman. At others, people are required to work out a notice period — typically two weeks — stipulated in their employment contract.
Once the news is delivered, Claman advises “muting your inner response of: What? Why? You didn’t tell me!” Instead, she says, “breathe” and “even if you’re upset”, do your best to engage in a “warm and friendly conversation about [the person’s] future plans.” In the modern workplace, “people come and go over and over again so it’s important to maintain relationships,” she explains. She adds, “Do things right so there’s no bad blood.”
Ask for a rationale
It’s still important, however, to try to “understand the why” behind the employee’s decision, says Lechner. “Very often you can do nothing about it,” she acknowledges. Sometimes the person simply got a better offer and her mind is made up. But, occasionally, you can discover new information that “will help you construct a solution.”
Consider a counter offer — or not
Whether or not to make a counter offer comes down to “how critical this person is to you and how much of a disruption their absence will cause,” says Lechner. But both experts caution that counter offers are often counter-productive. “It’s like being on the verge of divorce and then reconciling,” says Claman. A better strategy is to “retain a relationship” with the departing employee and then “re-recruit them in a year,” she adds. “Say: ‘We’ve missed you. And we would love to have you back.’”
Collaborate and communicate
You can’t control how others react to the news, but you can control how it gets communicated. Claman suggests collaborating with your exiting employee on how to best present the departure. “Say, ‘Let’s talk about what you’re going to say and what I’m going to say.’”
You have some difficult decisions to make about how to divvy up responsibilities while you’re short-staffed. Acknowledge that your team will have a “workload problem” for a time and that people are likely to “feel overburdened,” but also use the departure as an opportunity to “talk to employees about their careers and opportunities for growth,” says Claman.
The biggest challenge is transferring “the sticky knowledge — those things an employee knows, that can’t necessarily be shown on an Excel spreadsheet,” she adds. For this, you need to negotiate continued communication with the person “so you can tap their knowledge either by email or phone when problems arise.”
Make a hiring plan
Claman recommends coordinating with HR to formally list a job opening as soon as possible. “This helps people on your team understand that this is temporary,” she says. Ask employees for input on what skills, experience and qualities they would like to find in the new hire. Perhaps they know people — inside or outside the company — who would be a good fit.
Have a party
On the employee’s last day, it’s important to gather your team to “thank the person who’s leaving and wish them well,” says Claman. It doesn’t have to be a big party; “it could be coffee and donuts in the conference room.” But the act of celebration is key. After all, “it’s not only about the person who is leaving. It’s also about the people who are staying,” she says. “You are rewarding the people for whom it’s going to be a difficult few weeks.” Failing to acknowledge an employee’s departure and his or her contributions sends a bad message to your team, adds Lechner. “The subtext is that employees are a plug-and-play resource”: here one day, gone the next. She continues, “It’s important to humanize the work relationship.”
Then take time to reflect
Good managers should never be “truly surprised” when an employee announces she is leaving, says Claman. “As manager, you need to be aware of people’s interests and needs. You should know what they want to do.
And you should be able to tell when someone is tired of her job, has aged out of it, is not engaged, or has life changes afoot — like a move or a spouse transfer — that make a resignation likely, she says.
Principles to Remember:
• Immediately develop a hiring plan to replace the employee.
• Frame the resignation as an opportunity for remaining team members to take on new responsibilities and learn new things.
• Publicly acknowledge the employee’s departure and his contributions to the team.
• Take the resignation personal; instead, retain your relationship with the employee by engaging in a friendly conversation about future plans.
• Try to counter-offer unless it’s absolutely necessary — you’ll have more success if you wait a year and then try to recruit them back.
• Be blindsided again. Make an effort to talk to your team about their professional interests and needs.
Case Study #1: Be creative and accommodating about knowledge transfer
When Kenneth Jennings, the CEO of Mr. Rekey Locksmith, a residential and commercial locksmith service, found out that his top finance person — we’ll call her Louise — had accepted a new job, his mind reeled.
Once the surprise wore off, Ken relaxed. “You have to remember in these situations that you’re dealing with people. I want people to be happy, and I want them to have opportunities to move up in their lives,” he says.
With a warm and friendly attitude, he congratulated Louise on her new job and asked what drew her to the new company. Louise was under pressure to start at her new company as soon as possible, but Ken explained that he needed her help in bridging the transition. As a compromise, she worked part-time for both companies for two weeks and agreed to make herself available should questions arise after her departure.
Case Study #2: Preserve professional relationships — even long after the resignation
René Banglesdorf, the CEO and co-founder of Charlie Bravo Aviation, an Austin-based company that buys and sells private jets and helicopters, was taken completely aback when her executive assistant resigned after only six months in the job.
Julie* told René she was leaving the company for her dream job in the fashion industry. Outwardly, René took the news well. “I didn’t want to react negatively. I told her I was happy for her and asked when her last day would be,” she says. But the news was a blow. Julie handled everything from scheduling travel to creating market reports for the eight-person company. “Her leaving meant that all that work would be on my shoulders,” René says.
Previously, she asked resigning employees to leave immediately so as not to dent morale, but she asked Julie to work during her two-week notice period mainly because she “needed her to keep doing everything she had been doing,” she says. During this time, René got in touch with a former Charlie Bravo employee, Mary*, who had left the company on excellent terms a few years earlier.
She knew our company and she knew our culture,” René says. The day after Julie left, Mary took over her job. “It worked out amazingly well,” says René. “When I was younger, I took it personally when people resigned. I don’t do that anymore. From a professional standpoint, it’s so important to maintain relationships because you never know when you might need that person in the future.”