Smoother Separations

By Nancy Hatch Woodward Jun 1, 2007
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HR Magazine, June 2007 Make sure the way your company treats departing employees is good for business and remaining workers.

There are lots of reasons why employees decide to leave a job. But once they do, how an organization treats them on their way out the door can have a lasting impact—on them, and their former employer.

“The way an organization treats exiting staff members is very telling,” says Gail Gunderson, associate director of Organization and Human Resource Consulting (OHRC) at Ohio State University in Columbus. Staff should be treated as well when they depart as they were when they were hired, she advises.

Wendy Bliss, SPHR, founder of Bliss & Associates Consulting in Colorado Springs, Colo., and co-author of the Employment Termination Source Book (Society for Human Resource Management, 2006), says the best approach for employers is to adopt policies and practices that smooth the resignation process and help maintain a positive relationship with valued employees who have chosen to leave.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) 2006 Job Retention Poll, nearly three-quarters of HR professionals responding to the survey reported they were concerned about the number of voluntary resignations occurring in their organization.

The Wall Street Journal’s CareerJournal.com 2006 poll of 500 employees shows that companies have reason to be concerned. About 40 percent of respondents admitted they were actively searching for a new job, while 35 percent considered themselves “passive job seekers.”

Culture Colors Policy

Separation policies often reflect an organization’s culture. Some organizations have rigid and formal voluntary separation policies while others do not, says Bill Elkins, SPHR, manager of labor and employee relations with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif. “Our policies reflect the collegial nature of our work, culture and environment.” For example, exit interviews are part of the separation process but employee participation is voluntary. When he worked for The Boeing Co., Elkins notes, the separation policy was more regimented and formal, and there was less discretion in making exceptions or deviations.

Separation policies also should take into account the staffing realities of a particular industry, says Bliss. “Look at turnover patterns in [the] industry and the competitiveness for a particular job. What is the cost of this turnover to your organization, and what can you do through your retention and exit policies that may be effective in addressing this issue?”

Bliss says organizations with mostly unskilled or low-skilled workers may expect only a one-week notice and may not work hard to persuade a worker to stay, while a company staffed with highly skilled or technical professionals might require three weeks’ notice and may have strategies to keep employees on board.

Negotiating Longer Notice

Sometimes an organization may ask the employee to stay for longer than two or three weeks to complete a special project or to give the company time to find a replacement.

Such a situation might occur with a top performer, says Christine Vion-Gillespie, SPHR, a member of the SHRM Employee Relations Special Expertise Panel and employee relations and compliance manager at a high-tech software company. Her company has been known to offer a “stay bonus” in such cases to encourage an employee to stay for one or two months. There are times, however, says Shari Mickey-Boggs, OHRC director at Ohio State University, when employees can give too much notice. Though the university generally appreciates knowing in advance if an employee is planning to leave, she says, sometimes a longer notice period is not advantageous due to the nature of the position or the needs of the business unit, such as when the position involves tasks of a highly confidential or sensitive nature. In those situations, the school may negotiate a shorter notice for the employee.

Avoiding Gruff Goodbyes

Although employers sometimes require an employee to leave immediately after giving notice, doing so should be carefully weighed to avoid unintended consequences.

Take the case of Michael, dean of instruction at a private boarding school in southern Virginia who received a job offer he couldn’t refuse from another school. He wanted to give his current headmaster as much notice as possible so the school could find a replacement. Even though he was planning to stay until the end of the school year, Michael, who asked that his last name not be used in this article, announced three months ahead of time that he was resigning. His boss had other ideas, however, and told Michael that he and his family would have to leave immediately and move out of their house on campus. It took a lawyer to persuade the headmaster to allow them to stay for the remaining three months, amid a lot of hard feelings.

It is experiences like this that rile James Carlini, head of Carlini & Associates, an information and telecommunication technologies company in East Dundee, Ill. Carlini, author of “Ready to leave? Why you shouldn’t give two weeks’ notice,” for the Wisconsin Technology Network, writes that giving a two-week notice “went out with nickel beers.”

He advises employees to give notice the day they are leaving and blames employers themselves for prompting this counsel. Carlini recalls that a decade or so ago, some companies would bring employees into a conference room to tell them they had been downsized and then wouldn’t even let them go back to their desks to get their personal belongings. “The items were FedEx-ed to their home addresses,” Carlini explains, adding that abrupt departures may be the outcome of companies “reaping what they sowed.”

Carlini suggests that if an employer expects employees to give at least two weeks’ notice, the company should sign a formal agreement with employees that promises they will receive the same amount of notice if the organization plans to let them go.

But not everyone agrees. Bliss says having such an agreement would nullify any at-will employment arrangement. She says employers can ask for a reasonable notice period from their employees, but can’t require it. Elkins, who chairs the crisis action team that addresses threats of workplace violence at Berkeley Laboratory, says it is rare for an employee to be ushered out as soon as he or she tenders a resignation. “Every once in a great while, if we believe there is an issue of potential sabotage or other problems, we will arrange for an employee to leave immediately,” he says.

Vion-Gillespie says she has heard horror stories about HR finding out long after an employee has left that he or she did something harmful to the business. If you suspect that an employee who has resigned may pose a risk to your business, she recommends showing the person the door but paying the employee for the notice period. Otherwise, she warns, the employee may try to get unemployment compensation.

Persuading Good Employees To Stay

Sometimes, it may behoove a company to try and keep an employee from leaving. But you can’t convince employees to stay if you don’t know why they are quitting. Supervisors should start probing as soon as they think something is wrong. Finding ways to keep an employee can make good business sense.

For example, Mark Doboga, deputy associate director for talent and capacity policy with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in Washington, D.C., says an employer might spend a lot of money recruiting and hiring young engineers, but after a while those employees may decide they aren’t being challenged enough. “That’s something you can deal with because you made an investment there and you want to make sure they feel fulfilled,” he points out. When asked if other employees resent it when accommodations are made for resigning employees, Doboga says often it’s just the opposite. The employees you want to keep are “usually good at teamwork and getting things done, so a lot of times you have help from other employees when it comes to keeping good people from leaving.”

Communicating with the employee can help you ascertain if there are problems in the workplace that need attention. An employee could be leaving because of a condition that is already being addressed by management, says Bliss. If so, the company could tell the employee that the situation will soon be changing for the better.

Exit interviews are the final step and shouldn’t be viewed as a time to assess the employee’s problems and offer alternatives. They can, however, provide information that the employee did not share with their supervisor, says Bliss.

On a legal note, Vion-Gillespie warns employers to constantly review their separation practices to be certain there is no disparate impact or treatment among employees. Be sure, for instance, that you are not accepting resignations from blacks while encouraging whites to remain with the company.

Taking Them Back

Employers should make sure they leave the door open in case an employee who resigned wants to return, says OPM’s Doboga. “If they have had a positive experience, they may come back. Also, they will talk about the work they did, and you want that word-of-mouth out there to attract other people.”

Ohio State University’s separation policy allows employees to rescind their resignation, though there is no guarantee it will be accepted. “It depends on the talent of the particular individual and whether the unit has taken affirmative steps to replace the departing employee,” says Stephanie Berland, employee and labor relations consultant at OHRC. Berkeley Laboratory normally honors an employee’s change of heart if he or she is leaving on good terms.

If you have already hired someone to replace a departing employee, it may not be feasible to allow them to stay. But there may be ways around that, especially if the person who resigned was a star employee. Vion-Gillespie suggests that if the departing employee is really someone you would want to retain, keep them on. “You may be over head count a little, but you can handle that with attrition,” she says.

Staying in Touch

Marking an employee’s farewell with some type of recognition is a good way to provide closure for everyone, says Bliss. “It puts a positive impression in the departing employee’s mind, and it helps people say goodbye to co-workers they have enjoyed working with.”

Employers also may want to keep in touch with employees who have left the company. Develop an alumni program, Vion-Gillespie suggests. Such a program can pay off in several ways. First, the grass may not always be greener at their new job and they may want to return. Also, if they left because they wanted to stay home with their children for a while, or they thought early retirement was for them, the door will be open for them to return.

Vion-Gillespie suggests asking for departing employees’ personal e-mail addresses so you can let them know what is going on in the workplace, invite them back for company functions or find other ways to maintain alliances. “Keep them connected so when the time comes and they want to get back into the workforce, you are the first company that comes to mind.”

Nancy Hatch Woodward is a freelance writer based in Chattanooga, Tenn., and a frequent contributor to HR Magazine.

Web Extras

Online sidebar:
More Than a Bad Day?

SHRM articles:
Making Exit Interviews Work 
(HR Magazine)

Poll shows most managers likely to bolt for right offer
(HR News)

SHRM white paper:
Exit Interviews

SHRM book:
Employment Termination Source Book

Article:
Ready to leave? Why you shouldn't give two weeks' notice

SHRM survey:
2006 U.S. Job Retention Poll

What’s in Your Policy?

A standard separation policy covers the following elements, whose flexibility depends on the company:

Requested notice of resignation. The standard is two weeks, but it may range from one week to more than a month, depending on the industry and position. Some organizations require notice to be in writing; others don’t.

Acceptance of resignation. At Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, supervisors must immediately acknowledge in writing that an employee has tendered his or her resignation.

Language that gives the company the right to place a resigning employee on paid leave during the notice period.

A checklist for employees to follow before leaving. This may include turning in their security badge, keys or equipment.

Specific notice regarding what happens with accrued leave time and whether it can be used as part of the notice period.

Exit interviews. There are a variety of ways to handle these interviews, but they should be conducted by someone other than the employee’s supervisor and they should be completely confidential.

Permission for the employer to provide reference information about the employee.

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