When Someone Leaves

It’s a fact of life that people will quit your organization.  If you’re doing your job as a manager, you should have expected this; few people leave on a whim, and the warning signs stretch from complaints to repeated dental appointments with no apparent improvement in the smile.  Still it often comes as something of a shock when the day finally comes.
The first thing to remember is that it is almost always positive for both the employee and the organization.  The employee is leaving for something that is surely perceived to be an improved personal opportunity.  The organization, no matter how key the individual might be, will find a way to recover and will be stronger because of it.  There will be a short period of adjustment, and then you’ll adapt.

I once worked for a company that asked as soon as the letter came, “Can we save them?”  Sometimes we could, but inevitably, once someone is looking for a new job, they have effectively already left.  Whenever we saved them, they continued on at reduced performance for a few months and eventually left anyway.

Incidentally, having seen the other side of the same coin, the reverse is true.  A company that promises to reform itself to keep you probably won’t and you’ll be looking for work again in a few months.  And extra cash only makes you feel better about the personal sacrifices you’re making to come into work for a little while, and then the underlying reasons come back to the fore.  So, if a company is trying to convince you to stay, then remember that it’s only going to be for a few months anyway.
So, you’re going to lose staff, and while I suppose you could have a current succession plan in place for everyone who you consider a retention risk, you probably don’t and in the end, you only have two weeks to deal with the disruption.  At one place I worked, we developed a formal process for dealing with this.  It wasn’t that it happened frequently, but rather that it happened infrequently, and bungling an exit was expensive.  We wrote it down because when you lose someone you sometimes feel like panicking, and having a process quells panic.

The first step is to acknowledge to yourself that the person is leaving.  As I say, there is nothing that you can do to avoid this, although you can postpone it.  You should first congratulate them on either finding a new opportunity.

It is reasonable to inquire where they’re going, as I suppose this could impact how you treat them for their notice period.  Often salespeople who are going to a competitor, for example, get walked out the door in a vain attempt to reduce the damage.  However, realistically, they are taking their customer list with them, and they already have it filed somewhere.

You should also look at this initial meeting as an opportunity to learn.  Is the person leaving because of you or the organization?  How can you improve so that others don’t leave for the same reason?

Once you’ve satisfied yourself with the conversation, it’s time to start getting the word out and planning.   You should talk to the employee to ensure you know everything they do; especially with long-standing employees, you may not know it all.

You need to tell all the internal people who will be directly impacted by the change, find out what their view of the impact will be, and work with them to come up with a near-term and medium-term plan to manage that impact.  Hiring falls in the medium term.  Reasonable near-term plans are hand-off to existing staff, documentation and deferral of responsibilities or termination of responsibilities (you can stop doing things).

By the end of that first week of work, the plan should be known to everyone internal, and you should be starting to communicate it externally.  Your customers and suppliers need to know there is a plan and that the situation is under control.

The second week should be completely about implementing the plan.  I wouldn’t expect the exiting employee to do much more than to think about their new opportunity.  If there is hand-off to be done, they should be doing that early in the week, and overseeing the newly responsible person as they do it by mid-week.

At the end of the second week, you should have a leaving party.  Everyone needs an opportunity to say good-bye, and this party is more for the folks who are staying than for the one who is leaving.


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