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How to Handle Employee Resignations

Follow these steps to ensure a smooth departure.

Rubber ducks in a row on a blue background.

​When you’re overloaded with day-to-day concerns, adding a surprise task to your to-do list—such as coordinating an employee’s exit—can feel daunting.

The good news is that solo HR practitioners can develop a plan in advance that will allow them to handle the disruption with aplomb. Here’s how.

Step 1: Tackle logistics

Offboarding an employee isn’t as simple as disabling passwords and gathering company equipment. Still, that’s not a bad place to start. As soon as you’re notified of a resignation, contact payroll and IT to begin offboarding procedures. In addition, have the employee sign any necessary paperwork, such as a resignation letter or a noncompete or nondisclosure agreement, and notify the individual of benefits end dates and any COBRA considerations. Whenever possible, follow the same procedures for each employee. 

“Consistency is key. You want to cover all of this for all employees. No exceptions,” says Juliette Boyce, SHRM-CP, founder of Chicago-based consultancy Boyce HR.

Jim Jackson, director of human resources for inSeption Group, a pharmaceutical manufacturing company based in Lansdale, Pa., says HR professionals need to make sure they understand the specific employment laws in their state. That’s because many of these laws affect how an employee should be offboarded. 

“In California when someone resigns, you have to pay out all of their accrued vacation, for example,” he says. “If you fail to do so, the consequences are fairly severe.”

It’s also important to realize that however the employee has chosen to resign—whether via a kind letter with a month’s notice or by announcing “I quit” and heading for the door—they’re likely within their rights. “There are no federal or state requirements for a two-week notice,” Boyce says.

However, you may be able to create incentives to encourage employees to give a longer notice period, says Susan Anderson, director of human resources for Integrity Realty Group in Beachwood, Ohio. “Here in Ohio, I can have a policy that says we’ll only pay out your accrued but unused PTO [paid time off] if you give two weeks’ notice,” she says. “That’s not the case in every state.” 

If an employee doesn’t really need two weeks to wrap up projects and train colleagues, be flexible, Boyce advises. “Employees don’t want to be sitting around for 10 days when they’re finished in six,” she says. 

This is also the time to consider whether the employee is a potential security risk. “Will they damage client relationships or take company materials and templates?” Boyce asks. If so, it may be prudent to end their employment immediately. 

Step 2: Coordinate with the employee’s manager

This is your opportunity to discuss a succession plan and evaluate whether the current job description needs to be updated. Questions to consider include the following:

  • Should the job description or requirements change? For example, are the responsibilities of the position better carried out by a senior employee or two junior-level staffers? Should the requirement for a college degree be dropped to attract more candidates?
  • What are the budget constraints for a new employee’s salary?
  • Is this a good time to reorganize the team?
  • What is the timeline for scheduling interviews?
  • What is a reasonable deadline for making a final hiring decision?

In other words, it’s not always a simple out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new scenario. Every departure can be viewed as a chance to rethink how things have always been done—and potentially pursue a more effective arrangement.

Meanwhile, it can be helpful to have departing employees make a list of their job duties to give you a more accurate picture of the tasks that will require coverage both before and after a replacement is hired. You may also want to speak to the employee’s manager about having a colleague shadow the departing employee for training purposes. As Anderson observes, “business continuity issues are important.”

Step 3: Schedule the exit interview

The success of an exit interview largely depends on the questions you ask. This is a good time to inquire about sensitive topics—and to do so in a way that elicits candid answers. Don’t forget to offer the departing employee a chance to fill out a questionnaire that asks more-specific, targeted questions about the company’s benefits offerings or performance review process. 

The gist of the interview, of course, is to find out why the person is leaving. The interview doesn’t need to be extensive or overly formal, says Shawn Stout-Jough, SHRM-SCP, founder of Strategic HR Advisory in San Diego. 

“I like to find out how long they were thinking about leaving the firm and what the company could have done differently to keep them,” she says. From there, you can drill down further. Is it the pay? An interpersonal concern, such as a domineering manager or an ineffectual team? 

This is your chance not only to identify areas where the company may be weak—a liability in today’s talent wars—but also to unearth unhealthy dynamics within the organization. If you’re consistently hearing the same complaints from exiting employees, something has gone awry.

At this point, if the notice period is up, you can also request the return of company property, such as laptops, phones, corporate credit cards, security badges or keycards. 

Also, be sure to remove the employee from any recurring meetings or e-mail distribution lists and set up an automated e-mail response for both external and internal senders, redirecting them to whomever has assumed responsibility for the employee’s job functions.

Step 4: Keep your cool—and wish them well

It can be hard to keep your feelings in check when employees are on their way out the door. 

But failure to do so shifts the focus away from the departing employee’s needs and toward your own—which is not helpful to an employee navigating a transitional time.

“Try to eliminate emotions,” Boyce says. “People grow, and someone leaving a company doesn’t mean that the door to your working relationship is closed.” 

In fact, it’s wise to get departing employees’ contact information in case a relevant position opens up in the future or you have transition-

related questions they may be able to answer. You might even invite them to contact you should their new job turn out to be a poor fit.

Finally, take a moment to congratulate exiting employees on their next venture. Leaving a job is rarely easy. There are lots of changes, including having to get to know new colleagues and learn new systems. It can mean a lot to employees to have their contributions acknowledged and for the company to let them know they will be missed. 

Hosting a happy hour or casual offsite dinner helps colleagues say goodbye in a positive context and provides a sense of closure. That goes a long way toward keeping morale high, of course, but also toward showing other employees that if they should someday leave, they, too, will be treated with respect. 

“When we treat our departing employees with dignity,” Stout-Jough says, “we demonstrate to our current employees that they are safe and can trust us.”  

Kate Rockwood is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Image from Environmentic/iStock.


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