How to Stop Making Employee Exits Uncomfortable

Celebrate careers rather than bemoan ‘breakups’ with departing employees

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer May 12, 2021
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​Many are predicting a talent exodus of epic proportions later this year as the COVID-19 pandemic slowly recedes in the U.S. and people who had been hunkering down in their jobs start to look elsewhere for new opportunities.

Retaining good workers is important, HR experts believe, but so is understanding that people inevitably move on. How employee exits are managed has a big impact on the morale, engagement and, ultimately, retention of those who remain.   

Employers should stop making employee departures awkward and uncomfortable, said Adam Weber, senior vice president of community at 15Five, a performance management platform in San Francisco. "Often, when people quit, they're made to feel that their time spent at the company was a failure, like they're letting people down or they owe somebody something. I feel that's a disservice to that person and the work they created. When people move on to boldly pursue their next opportunity, it should be cause for celebration," said Weber, a former chief people officer at a previous employer.

Telling your manager that you're leaving can feel like a betrayal, said Peggy Hogan, SHRM-SCP, director of talent services at Purple Ink, an HR consultancy in Carmel, Ind. "Much like a breakup with a loved one or partner, you are telling the employer that you don't want to spend time together anymore, they aren't fulfilling your needs, you don't find joy with them and you don't see a future with them. You are moving on to something better with someone else."

Employees can sense when the workplace culture doesn't give permission to leave, which makes them act secretively, or feel guilty or as if their decision to leave is an invalidation of all the work they did, Weber said. "For managers, it comes down to fear of not being able to replace the person, and how the disruption of recruiting, hiring and getting the new person up to speed will impact them. The employee's decision is viewed through a selfish lens."

Seth Morales, CEO at Morales Group, a staffing firm in Indianapolis, admitted that thinking positively about employees leaving has been a work in progress for him. "It used to be when people announced they were leaving, I felt offended, like I had invested so much in a teammate and now they're leaving," he said. "I think for a lot of managers and employees it's taboo to even talk about. But that's the wrong approach because the idea that someone will work for you for 25 years doesn't exist anymore. Generation Z and Millennials are doing pit stops for one to three years and then they're out, looking to advance their careers."

The negative ramifications of mishandling employee departures include damage to brand reputation and employee morale. "When employees see how departing teammates are treated, if companies are litigious, or enforce really difficult noncompete [agreements], or leaders talk negatively about someone exiting, it's going to affect the rest of the team," Morales said. "I think that kind of attitude hurts the health of the organization."

Open Conversations

Experts recommended frequent communication and authentic conversations between managers and their teams to avoid anxiety-fraught employee exits.  

"The best managers I've seen are the ones who are open and have the best communication with their teams," Morales said. "There needs to be trust both ways. It's up to the employee to have realistic expectations and be able to feel comfortable to share and the employer to foster that environment to share without retaliation."  

Weber is also "a big believer in continual feedback and frequent communication between managers and employees. Every year, I set high-level goals with my employees, and we are talking constantly about the future. Because I have visibility into their life goals and what they are trying to accomplish, I can recognize that a new opportunity is a step forward for them, and root for their success, which makes it easier to celebrate a departure."

Hogan said she's known some clients that allow the employee to look for a new role while still employed, and even offer career-transition assistance. "What if we could collaborate on how we break up?" she asked. "I've recently heard from people who have done this very thing. They want to move on and are able to have a frank discussion with their employer about leaving. They agree to work hard, conduct their job search with transparency and part as friends. The employer sometimes even offers career-transition assistance to help them. This allows the employer to recruit at the same time and for there to be a peaceful transition of work. It sounds so simple, but trust me, this can happen and does."

Weber said that fundamentally, there needs to be a messaging shift characterizing employee success from "success at the organization" to "overall career success."

He added that he's held happy hours for departing employees, "where we go around and say how they impacted the business or share fun memories with that person, and then one of the founders would close the happy hour with a toast to that person's future, to acknowledge and appreciate how they contributed to our business."

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