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What to Do When an Employee Departs Suddenly

JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater took the phrase “take this job and shove it” to a new level when he exited an Aug. 9, 2010, flight—beer in hand—via an emergency slide he had deployed following an altercation with a passenger. Though Slater’s style made him an instant Internet sensation, HR experts said sudden departures are not uncommon and should trigger a series of immediate steps.

Randall Barker, SPHR, vice president of human resources at A Plus Benefits, said one client’s long-time employee handed her boss a “Dear John” style resignation letter on her way out the door; it said in part: "I'm not quite sure how to say this, so I will just come right out. I'm breaking up with you. … We have been through a lot together and we did a lot for each other. And while I still love you, I'm not 'in' love with you. In fact, I've met someone else. We've been seeing each other for a while now. We love the same things in life: sleeping at night, seeing our loved ones on a regular basis, and taking a day off once in a while without guilt or repercussions.”

The letter came as quite a surprise to the company, according to Barker, because the employee “was well liked, respected and valued for her contribution to the team.” Nevertheless, the company moved swiftly to be sure that the employee had not tried to sabotage the company prior to departure.

“Often, when an employee leaves and is upset about it they try to find ways to take it out on their employer,” Barker told SHRM Online. “We recommended our client check and make sure that everything was secure, including relationships with partners, clients and other employees.”

Mark Bugaieski, SPHR, HR director for Illinois CancerCare, said one of the most memorable departures he witnessed was an employee who “flipped us off and said ‘adios, mother****ers!’ ” as she left the building.

He said there are a number of immediate actions a company should take when an employee departs under less-than-favorable circumstances, such as seeing the employee to the front door, making sure they leave the company premises and alerting the receptionist or security desk to report immediately if the person comes back.

The employee’s manager should inform their work group that the person is no longer employed, Bugaieski stated. “And of course immediately turn off systems and building access” for that person.

“A sudden resignation may be triggered by serious personal stressors, which could lead to an increased risk that the employee would be prone to disruptive and perhaps even violent behavior toward co-workers and the business generally,” added Dan McCoy, a partner with the law firm of Fenwick & West. “In that regard, employers should take appropriate safety measures and be watchful for any signs of destructive behavior, which can take many forms—from personal threats, to defamatory Internet postings, to property destruction.”

“Eliminating the employee's computer access ASAP is the first priority,” according to Robert E. King, founder of Legally Nanny, an Irvine, Calif.-based law firm. “You do not want an employee who has resigned—especially one who has done so in a dramatic fashion—hanging around the office, potentially viewing or taking files, or talking or causing a scene with other employees,” he told SHRM Online.

King suggested that employers observe and escort departing employees as they gather personal belongings and then have the company’s technology staff review the employee’s computer records to determine if the employee e-mailed company files or saved them onto a disc or thumb drive prior to leaving.

“A sudden resignation could mean that the employee is headed to a competitor, and in that event, a review of keystrokes takes on even greater importance,” agreed McCoy.

And employers should be sure to retrieve company property such as credit cards and cell phones, noted Bridgette Robinson, director of human relations for Cultural Resource Analysts, Inc. in Lexington, Ky.

Investigating the Cause

Though safety, security and retrieval of property are foremost concerns following a sudden departure, some experts say employers should dig a little deeper to determine the cause.

Ed Muzio, author of Make Work Great (McGraw-Hill, 2010) and CEO of Group Harmonics, Inc., said employers should be sure to separate the drama from the facts when employees depart suddenly.

“Don't brush it off as a personal meltdown, and don't frame it as evidence that the company is evil,” he told SHRM Online. “Most likely the resignation is rooted in reasons both personal and professional. … Separate the personal and professional reasons, and focus on what the company can do about the professional ones,” he suggested.

“The single most important thing for an employer to do following a dramatic resignation is to investigate and document the circumstances,” said Christopher D’Angelo, a management attorney with Vandenberg & Feliu LLP in New York. “If it is simply a ‘blowup’ with a peer or supervisor, the investigation should be relatively simple to accomplish.”

“The goal is to do everything needed to protect the company from any legal fallout,” D’Angelo said, by asking a series of questions, such as:

  • Was the employee provoked?
  • If so, was the provocation a product of illegal conduct, such as discrimination or harassment?
  • Was the employee warning the company of a potentially hazardous condition or threat to employee or public safety?

D’Angelo said that such resignations are often “the product of a melodramatic, petulant or immature employee.”

In that case, it’s important to sever ties as cleanly as possible.

Bugaieski did just that when another employee got mad and stormed out. “We made sure to accept her resignation verbally,” he told SHRM Online. “When she called the next day wanting to come back, we informed her she’d resigned as of the previous day and the matter would not be reconsidered.”

As for JetBlue’s action steps, spokesperson Mateo Lleras told SHRM Online that he was unable to comment, noting that “employee procedures are private to the company.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Articles:

Smoother Separations, HR Magazine, June 2007

Plan a Graceful Exit, SHRM Online Career Articles, Feb. 1, 2007

Handling Employee Resignations: Issues, Policy and Forms, SHRM Research Article, Jan. 1, 2006


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