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Don’t Let Departure Be a Disaster

A key employee unexpectedly leaving can be a stress bomb if you don’t see it coming and you don’t have a plan to deal with it

January 29, 2016
What to do when a key employee leaves your company

Your (insert employee role here—production manager, sales manager, office manager) knocks on your door, comes into your office, and announces that he or she is leaving the company. Or you get an email to that effect. There could be any reason for the employee deciding to leave, and the reason is incidental to the loss. It could be that the employee decided to start a business of his or her own; or is overwhelmed with the demands of young children; or has to care for an ailing, aging parent; or has simply accepted a job somewhere else.

Such situations can induce panic in owners of small businesses, where typically hands are few and responsibilities for each person are many. If you feel helpless, that’s normal. “In a small business or startup setting,” Nicole Fallon writes in Business News Daily, “every employee is an essential member of the team. It's hard to imagine how the business would keep functioning if one person had to take a short leave of absence, let alone if that employee quit altogether.”

Though you may at first feel helpless, then resentful, human resources experts advise that you ignore what you’re feeling and act professionally. Don’t get mad or argue. If the employee is announcing a resignation, the chances of changing that person’s mind are slim. Other people will pay close attention to how you respond. Chances are, many of them already know that so-and-so is leaving. That departure will “generate ripples in an organization,” blogger Stephanie Reyes writes, at TribeHR. And if that person takes a lot of organizational knowledge with them, that ripple “can morph into a tsunami.” Bear in mind that your situation is not unique. With “employee turnover expected to increase to 23.4% in the next few years,” Reyes points out, “employers should expect key people to leave at some point, especially baby boomers, exiting the workforce in ever greater numbers.”

Think About How You Respond

How it might play out long-term depends on your response. Jay Steinfeld, CEO of Blinds.com, starts his article in Inc. by describing the afternoon last November when his chief sales officer told him that, after eight years at the company, he was resigning for a better opportunity. After the initial shock and dismay wore off a bit, Steinfeld says he told himself, “if I was to truly believe in our core values of helping people become better than they believed possible, I could tell him nothing but ‘Congratulations, I’m happy for you.’”

One strategy that few HR experts are enthused about is the counteroffer. If a key player says that he or she is leaving, that’s most likely for real, not a play for a raise. Even if you offered the employee more money and they accepted that and stayed, the fact that they’ve just about left makes it hard to trust them again. Besides, notes Robert Hunt, in Renaissance Executive Forum, “most employees leave a company for reasons other than wanting more money. Having a bad boss is one of the biggest reasons. People also leave because they feel the company has no vision (that is, ‘this place is going nowhere, so why would I stay here’), no empathy, no drive or motivation, and it’s no fun.”

Damage Control

Handling the announcement in a professional manner is essential. You may also want to leave the door open for a return at some point. Ongoing communication—about jobs underway, for instance—will be necessary. “Show them that you care, that you want them to stay,” Steinfeld advises. Don’t just accept their letter of resignation and stew about it.

Now deal with the repercussions in your organization. A resignation, especially that of a key person, is a political event. People are talking. If you say nothing, you forfeit the ability to control the message and the damage. Candor is the best policy. “Your team needs the straight story,” writes Josh Steimle at Entrepreneur. Authenticity in the face of serious challenges is what builds trust, he points out. Don’t be afraid to show your vulnerability. If losing this team member is a big blow for you, tell them. Announce the departure to employees and “be clear that the departure is unwanted, change is unavoidable, but we have a solution to make it through the turbulence.”

Pastures Not So Green

And have that solution—in other words, a plan for what to do. The whole idea of a “key employee” is that that type of person is not easily replaced. But who would you want, or trust, among current staff, to take the place of your production manager or sales and marketing person? No one employee should have exclusive knowledge of, for instance, your production systems, or the way your company generates and handles leads. Cross-training should be ongoing, so that someone at your company can step in on a temporary basis while you turn your attention to solving the problem long-term. And in addition to an employee-generated job description (tweaked and finalized by you), you’d be smart to have on file something else, says QuickBooks: 

“Ask your key employees to write a small document that describes their daily duties. It should comprise all tasks, websites, and documents used, as well as usernames, passwords (kept in a secure location), and other important notes. If you haven’t done this and an important team member is leaving in the near future, offer to pay them extra to create the document before their departure.”

That document and a job description will make it much easier as you move to replace the person. And who knows, you may end up down the road with something called a “boomerang hire,” that is, someone who once worked for your company applying to work for you again. Don’t be surprised. Kerry Hannon at Forbes says boomerang employees are on the rise. She cites a recent survey of HR professionals in which “76 percent say they are more accepting of hiring boomerang employees today than in the past.” Increasingly, the idea of hiring the alumni of your organization is viewed as a smart move. They probably need minimal training. You know their skills and how well they fit in with the culture of your organization. You can hire them quickly. And it often happens that those who leave for what turn out to be “browner pastures” are more than happy to be back, and to stay.

About the Author

About the Author

Philadelphia-based writer Jim Cory is a senior contributing editor to Professional Remodeler who specializes in covering the remodeling and home improvement industry. Reach him at coryjim@earthlink.net.

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