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How to Manage Morale When a Well-Liked Employee Leaves

Paper airplanes flying in the air on a blackboard.

Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with Harvard Business Review to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies.

It's a dreadful moment when a well-liked member of your team tenders their resignation. You experience a cocktail of emotions ranging from fear about how the rest of the team will react, to frustration at having to add recruiting to your already hectic calendar. The worst is the lingering feeling of being rejected. As with most difficult situations as a manager, how you handle the resignation will affect more than just you. How you respond will influence whether the person's departure becomes a typical bump in the road or the inflection point to a downward trend for your team.

Before sharing the news with anyone, take some time to consider your response carefully. This allows you to grapple with your own reactions before you're forced to manage those of your team members. If you move too quickly and try to communicate a positive message while harboring anxiety, frustration or bitterness, those potent emotions will show through in your body language. When your words are positive but your body language telegraphs concern, your team will notice the incongruence and infer your intent from what you're showing rather than what you're saying.

Once you've reflected on your own reaction, you can work through a process that will minimize the damage of a well-liked team member resigning.

Start by helping everyone celebrate the person who is leaving. It's understandable if you feel like downplaying the person's departure, in hopes that no one will notice. It just isn't likely to work. Losing a well-liked colleague will create concern and even grief for your team and invalidating that grief removes an important part of the process. Letting the person slip out the door unheralded will suggest that you don't care. Don't make the mistake of minimizing the moment.

Instead, be at the front of the "we'll miss you" parade. Throw a party to wish the person well. Say a few words about some of the great things the person contributed to the team. Laugh about inside jokes and shared experiences because, as you do, you'll not only make the person who's leaving feel good about your team, you'll strengthen the bond among the people who remain.

Recalling these stories will also put a smile on your face, which is much better than the look of terror that might be associated with your inner voice that's saying, "What will we do without her?" or "What if others start to follow suit?" That face will only make your team more nervous when they're looking to you for reassurance. Your words and body language should convey that it's normal and natural for people to move on.

Once you've thrown the party the person deserves, ask them for a favor in return — their candor about what you need to learn from their departure. Even if your organization has a formal third-party exit interview process, conduct your own interview. Ask the person to be honest with you as part of the legacy they can leave in making you and the team better in the future. Prepare your questions carefully and get ready to take the lumps.

You'll need to have good questions and follow-up prompts to get past the pat answers such as "I was offered higher compensation" and "It's an opportunity I couldn't refuse." You need to identify what factors contributed to the person taking the call from the recruiter in the first place. You can make these questions less pointed by asking, "What advice would you give me to prevent another great person like you from taking a call from a recruiter?" "What do I need to know that people aren't telling me?" "How could I improve the experience of working here?" By making the questions more generic and less personal, the departing employee might feel more inclined to share any uncomfortable truth.

You can also seek feedback about things beyond your control, such as, "What other messages does the company need to hear?" "What factors would contribute to a better experience here?" Throughout the discussion, your emphasis should be on asking great questions. Do as little talking as possible and instead, listen carefully and objectively.

After the exit interview, your head will be full of powerful, sometimes conflicting thoughts and feelings. Give yourself a night to sleep on it and then start the process of putting your insights into action. First, lean into the uncomfortable conversations. Whether one-on-one or in team meetings, dig into any themes that have merit. Share your hypotheses and ask people to clarify, refine, validate, or challenge how you're thinking.

For example, you could say, "I'm coming to understand that the biggest problem is not the workload, but the lack of focus. What do you think? Is it true, false, or only half the picture?" This process of generating and testing hypotheses will not only help you make the most targeted changes, it will also help you strengthen the connection with your remaining team members.

As you listen to their responses, go beneath the facts and information they're sharing with you and watch and listen for what they are feeling and what they value. Where does their language become stronger (e.g., "we always do this," or "never do that"), suggesting that they are frustrated or angry. Where does it become weaker (e.g., "I guess we…, or "I think sometimes we might"), hinting that they might feel hesitant or powerless. What is their body language telling you? When you spot an emotional reaction, ask a few more questions to understand what's beneath their feelings.

Through all of these conversations, try to discern whether one great person resigning was a single point or the start of a pattern. Be open about what you can do differently and advocate for the changes from other stakeholders that will make your team a better one to work on.

The insights you glean from conducting your own exit interview and testing your hypotheses will be valuable, but don't lose sight of the most important ways that you contribute to the morale of your team — by positioning them to do meaningful work. Double down on the management essentials. Make sure everyone is clear on your expectations, especially on the highest (and lowest) priorities for the team. Have frank conversations to ensure people feel like they have the requisite skills and resources to do their jobs well. And pay more attention to the feedback, coaching, and celebrations that will motivate them and keep them engaged.

If there was a problem on your team you were unaware of (or trying to ignore) it might take losing a well-liked employee for you to recognize the severity of the issue. Work through your emotions and then start a virtuous cycle by celebrating the departing employee, seeking their candid feedback in an exit interview, forming and testing hypotheses about how to improve your workplace, and making meaningful changes that make your team feel heard and valued. Losing one team member might end up being a relatively low price to pay if it leads to better morale all around.

Liane Davey is the cofounder of 3COze Inc. She is the author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done and a coauthor of Leadership Solutions: The Pathway to Bridge the Leadership Gap. Follow her on Twitter at @LianeDavey.

This article is reprinted from Harvard Business Review with permission. ©2018. All rights reserved.


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