What To Do When Your Employee Resigns

Much has been written about the great resignation and the tough impact on businesses today. But what does it mean in practical terms when you’re on the receiving end? What can you do as a leader to minimise the ripple effect and reduce the impact on those that remain?

Let’s back up for a moment, because it’s tempting to think that the great resignation is just a State-side phenomenon. But the great resignation isn’t just in the US. A study by Microsoft found that 41% of the global workforce are considering leaving their current employer during 2021, so if they haven’t already – they may still. And with the ONS reporting hiring reaching record levels across all industry sectors in the UK this summer, over a million jobs are up for grabs for those considering a change. So whilst the trend is worldwide; the impact very much closer to home.

When staff choose to move on it doesn’t just leave a gap that needs filling and work to be done; it will likely trigger emotion in the rest of the team and stimulate questions about the future. Whether you are a founder who has built the team into what it is today or the leader who has cultivated a thriving team; when a key member decides to leave, those around you will look to you for leadership, direction and action.

Arguably, how you manage staff exits is as important as how you manage staff onboarding; yet it very rarely gets the same attention or investment. Ex-employees have the potential to be fantastic ambassadors for your business, but if resignations are managed badly the negative impact will be felt by your existing team and customers alike.

So what can you do when your employee resigns? And how can you minimise the impact elsewhere in your business?

Here are seven things to think about.

1. Why is the employee leaving?

When you receive an employee resignation, it’s not a done deal; there are still options. Talk to the individual, listen to them and understand why they are moving on.

Are they leaving to pursue something they really want? If they are running towards a new opportunities that’s all well and good; if they’re running from what they currently have, that’s a different issue. Is there something they’re not sharing with you or might be holding back? If you suspect there is, find someone in your management team who they respect and ask them to have a chat over a coffee to see if anything can be done to change their mind.

2. What’s the wider context?

Loyalty can be brilliant, but retaining even great staff forever can be hard. When your business has ambition, you’ll likely be hiring people who have ambition too. As much as you care for your team, it is not your businesses purpose to create jobs just to keep good people. In small companies, there’s a limit, even when you’re growing, about the jobs that will be available (a business of 50 people is unlikely to need a CFO, Finance Director, and Assistant Finance Director for example). So if they’re leaving for something they really want, are great at doing, and that you can’t provide – be supportive.

Take gratitude in the fact that you’ve helped them in their journey be proud of how you and your company have contributed to their success. And if your company might not be the place for them right now, that doesn’t stop you exploring a return in the future.

It could be that their move is due to change within the business. If your company is pursuing growth post pandemic, it is likely that you’ll be starting to communicate your vision and ambition. When you do this, it’s natural that your team will begin to think about whether it’s something this is a future they want to be part of. We all grow, just sometimes we grow in different directions. If they choose to take another path, let them go; their departure is inevitable and leaving sooner rather than later will avoid disruption or lack of engagement as you move forward.

3. The personal impact

When someone leaves a natural response is to question what we could have done differently to make them stay. No matter how rational we are, when staff leave us, it’s not unusual for it to trigger feelings of rejection.

Rejection is one of the our deepest human fears and no matter the source, it hurts. Pain is an essential human emotion, however any type of pain is valuable to us only as a warning, an alert for danger and a stimulus for action. It’s OK to feel the pain of rejection, but it’s not okay or healthy to let it take over.

If you start to feel bitter, or rejected, listen to the feeling, tell yourself that you’ve noticed it and what it’s trying to tell you, and then decide what you’re going to do about it. 

Think about the opportunity their leaving creates. It may not feel like it initially, yet it will present you with opportunities. The chance to bring in new talent, generate new ideas and possibilities? What else? 

4. Manage the narrative

When someone is leaving to take on an exciting new opportunity, they’ll naturally want to talk about it. Agreeing, and managing, the messaging here is important. Give the employee a short amount of time to tell those close to them, before you communicate it quickly to the wider team. Think in hours and days, not weeks; the grapevine will soon go into overdrive if you don’t.

This is the moment it becomes not about you or the person who is leaving; it’s entirely about your team. What will go through their minds when they hear the news? What do you want them to think? Common concerns tend to be; impact on team dynamics; increased pressure (who will pick up their work?); and the threat of unknown new colleagues. 

Typically, depending on the leavers position in your business, talking with the team together face to face (or camera to camera) is best. If there are key people who you know are important to get on board, take them to one side and pre-brief them. As well as making them feel valued, you can also use this to gauge their reaction ahead of talking to the wider team. 

Focus on these things: what’s happening; what it mean for them in the immediate & longer term; what you’ll be doing as a leadership team (how big a priority it is) and who to talk to if they have questions. 

5. Reduce the ripple effect

Now is the time to show leadership and to show your team that you’ve got it in hand. 

Communicate with the team regularly. Tell them your plans. In the absence of communication, people will create their own narrative and speculation will ensue. When someone leaves it’s natural to question whether the grass is indeed greener.

One CEO I worked with recently described how three of his team who joined two years prior, had recently moved on. After one quit to pursue her side hustle full time, it took less than a month before two more found opportunities elsewhere. It doesn’t always happen like this, but when teams work closely together and conversation shifts to opportunities beyond the present day, questions and thoughts naturally arise.

You can’t change this entirely, but you can give them reasons to stay. it is during times of turbulence that we often seek certainty. As the leader you might not have all the answers, but don’t let people make incorrect assumptions. Tell them what you know and what your plan is. If you don’t have an immediate contingency or succession plan, be honest. Ask for thoughts and reassure the team that you’ll consider what you need to do quickly and decide a plan of action. Keep them informed and check in with them often over the coming weeks.

6. Hire quickly and intentionally

Unless you’re recruiting robots, take a moment and think about what you really need, in the immediate term and for the future. Recruit someone who can do what you need now and who can be there with you as you drive forward your vision for the future. Think about skills and think about behaviour. Great teams are made up of people with different styles and approaches. Think about the team that you have, what’s missing and what’s needed both in the short term and long. 

Start the day you accept the resignation. Don’t wait. In this climate, finding the ideal next candidate can take weeks, through to months. Any time lost here will be really felt once the individual is out the door.

7. Maximise input and output in the last few days

Start by getting a good handover, in good time before the last day. There’s no need to make it complicated. Three things are absolutely critical: Current work priorities; current status; next steps to delivery. But don’t just focus on the ‘what’ of the job – make sure you understand the ‘how’ and ‘who’ too; for example who are the key influencers this person works with to help them get things done and how do they go about it? Think about what you need, be crystal clear about what that looks like and the level of detail required; ‘a good handover’ can look incredibly different through different eyes. 

It can be tempting to discount the value that the individual can still offer whilst they’re working their notice and managers can be quick to write people off quickly when they resign with a ‘yes but she’s leaving’. Treat them like the full member of your team you’re paying them to be and enable them to keep delivering where they can. When the individual moves on, their final memories and experiences of your company will be the freshest, so help them feel valued and motivated until the end.

8. Maintain the relationship

It should go without saying that you’ll have been getting feedback throughout their employment, but now is a great time to sit down with them and get their reflections on their time in your business.

Celebrate their achievements and ask about their own experiences. What have they loved about working in the company? What are they most proud of? What would they like to have been different? 

Keep in touch, with purpose. Ex-employees can be valuable ambassadors for your company. Patty McCord, formerly Chief Talent Officer at Netflix asks “what if we created companies that were great places to be from, and everybody who leaves becomes an ambassador for not only your product, but who you are and how you operate“.

Take lessons from educational institutions; cultivate an alumni network and think about how you continue to engage with those who’ve moved on.

Manage the goodbye well and the story they tell about your company will be a great one, that they tell often, with pride. 

Questions to reflect on and consider

  • How do you handle and minimise the impact of resignations?
  • What did you agree with or disagree with in the piece above? Why?
  • What do you normally get right when you have employees resign? 
  • Where do you need to place more emphasis for future ‘goodbyes’? 

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