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Get all your ducks in a row: The last few weeks of an HR professional’s tenure should be marked by diplomacy, discretion, organization and sound judgment.
In September 2008, Michell Baker, PHR, brought to a close six years as an HR executive at a national 120,000-employee transportation company headquartered in Cincinnati. She resigned to move closer to family in Indianapolis. "I loved the job, but my priorities weren’t straight," she says. "I was eating and breathing work." The chief financial officer urged her to stay but understood her decision. Baker agreed to remain for a month until the company could get a replacement. In the final weeks, she parceled out unfinished projects, organized files, trained a replacement, smoothed ruffled feathers of those upset about her resignation and reassured managers of her commitment to confidentiality. After an amicable departure, the company paid her COBRA health premiums and a severance package. She had never heard of someone who resigned and got severance. The reason? Executives were grateful for her professionalism through her final day. Baker serves as a role model for HR professionals preparing a trouble-free transition for their successors. "Provide the same level of HR support you always provided," she advises. "Act like it is your third day or fifth week. Leave with dignity, not arrogance." Baker is now the HR manager at G&H Wire Co., an 80-employee orthodontics manufacturer in Franklin, Ind. Whether moving to a new position or being laid off, an HR professional’s final weeks on the job remain crucial for maintaining a first-class reputation. "End on professional terms," advises lawyer Johnny C. Taylor Jr., SPHR, author of The Trouble with HR: An Insider’s Guide to Finding and Keeping the Best People (Amacom, 2009) and former chairman of the Society for Human Resource Management’s board of directors. "HR professionals are not exempt from layoffs. Some HR professionals who are involuntarily laid off are angry and bitter. They have initial thoughts of, ‘I’m out of here. I’ll stay long enough, but I won’t help the company in its transition.’ " But Taylor warns, "Your reputation will extend past your current employer. Others will know if you were petty, unprofessional or discourteous. Leave your shop the way you would like to receive it. It speaks well of the profession if you help with an orderly transition." Moreover, professionalism and a positive attitude should be conveyed in your resignation letter, advises Marian Knowles, an HR manager for the Universal wholesale petroleum company in New Castle, Del. "A resignation doesn’t have to be a negative event." Knowles was an HR and training manager at a managed health care company in 2005 when her job was one of several HR positions eliminated. "It was a wonderful learning experience to know you are being eliminated and staying through the last day," she says. "It is a chance to find out what makes you tick and where your work ethics and values are." Indeed, the ways HR professionals carry out their responsibilities during their final weeks on the job constitute a measure of character. To demonstrate integrity and reliability, HR professionals need to manage employee reactions to their departures; train replacements; review confidentiality, nonsolicitation and noncompete agreements; and maintain a positive attitude. Employee Reactions Be prepared for strong reactions from employees. The better customer service you provided, the more upset employees will be. Their No. 1 concern is whether the next person will be as accessible and efficient, according to Baker. When Baker announced her resignation, "99 percent of employees understood, but some had sour feelings," she says. "A couple of people cried. A couple of people got mad at me." She advises HR professionals to say, " ‘I’m extremely flattered. I have complete faith you’re in good hands. Wish me luck.’ " If employees get angry with you, simply tell them, " ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’ and then leave it alone," says Susan Anderson, HR director for Notre Dame College in Cleveland. Be prepared for everything from pleas that you remain to requests that you leave immediately, Knowles warns. Maintain a positive relationship with co-workers and managers to retain contact information for networking purposes, Baker says. "Recently, I called my former VP and said, ‘I’m in this situation, and this is how I’m handling it. I need a sounding board.’ It helps to keep bridges. You never know when you’ll need those resources." Hand Off Projects View your office and projects with a fresh eye. "Organize the office so the next person can find everything easily," Anderson advises. Label files, create how-to guides, and document processes. Keep in mind that file names that make sense to you may not make sense to another HR professional. Choose clear yet descriptive titles. In documenting employee relations matters, include useful background information since the new HR professional likely is coming in cold and doesn’t know the players. Taylor recommends writing a "parting memo that puts everything in order. Be willing to leave your phone number, and be helpful if they call." For example, in March 2009—six months after her resignation—Baker spent an hour during a lunch break helping her former employer with some questions from an open U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charge. Request a replacement as soon as possible. Train the new person and introduce him or her to internal customers. Because Baker’s replacement was an HR manager promoted from within, "she already knew the people and the policies and procedures of the company, so it was different than hiring someone cold," Baker says. "I only had to get her up to speed on the director level—the board of directors, monthly reviews, decision-making, executive contacts, open EEOC charges, etc." Exchange the Baton "Be open and transparent," says Robert Milligan, a partner in Los Angeles with the Seyfarth Shaw LLP law firm. "Don’t print lists of customers, burn sales figures to a disk or e-mail documents to yourself. You’re not doing your new employer any favors by taking documents or information. And it can lead to litigation." He notes that technology leaves a footprint—meaning employers have records of your actions. And Taylor warns that sharing information about your former employer with your new one may give the impression you can’t be trusted. A smooth transition will bring rewards to all involved. In her case, Baker says, "I’m extremely happy. I miss my co-workers and the high-level excitement of my former job, but I make that up in my free time." Like Baker, Knowles sprinted to the finish line and advises others to do the same: "Put as much heart and soul into leaving the position as you did when you took the job. Remember, what we do has an impact on the company and their greatest asset: the employees. When I run into former co-workers and managers, I want to hear them say, ‘Boy, we miss you.’ "
The author, a former HR generalist and trainer, is a freelance writer in Wixom, Mich.
SHRM article (online sidebar): Legal Constraints During Transitions (HR Magazine)
SHRM article: Jobless HR Pros Using Their Skills for Good in Bad Economy (SHRM Online Staffing Management Discipline)
SHRM article: Tie Up Loose Ends (Staffing Management magazine)
SHRM article: Tailor Non-competes to a T (HR Magazine)
SHRM article: California: The Bellwether (HR Magazine)
SHRM article: Enforceability of Noncompete Agreement Depends on Factual Context (SHRM Online Legal Issues)
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