A woman holding a cardboard box, waving goodbye to her colleagues, symbolising when employees resign.
Image: © Mladen/Stock.adobe.com

How to react when one of your employees resigns

7 Dec 2022

Travis O’Rourke dives into the best way to handle the resignation of one of your employees and why an attitude adjustment may be needed.

We all know that the age-old adage of a ‘job for life’ is well and truly a thing of the past. In fact, according to a survey by Deloitte, more than half of Gen Z workers and 40pc of millennials in Ireland plan to leave their current jobs within the next two years – that’s one in two people.

Teamed with the fact that we are all going to be working for longer, some well into our 70s and even 80s, it’s becoming far more likely that one of your team members will resign in the not-too distant future – and if you think about it, it makes sense that they will.

For all too many managers, however, it can still be shocking when a member of their team – especially a high-performing one – arranges a meeting with them and proceeds to hand in their notice.

That initial feeling of shock is completely understandable. After all, this is an employee you rely on, who you’ve invested in developing, who brings real value to your team and the wider business – and they’ve just told you that they’re leaving.

It’s also completely understandable to feel personally attacked on some level, or maybe even rejected. But it’s important that you take a deep breath and try to keep things in perspective.

So, follow these steps to ensure you respond to an employee resignation in the best possible way.

Stay calm and don’t panic

Life will go on once an employee decides to leave your team, even though it might not seem like it at the moment. Even if you’re anxious to begin with – which is understandable – you’ll find a solution that will enable your team to continue to survive and thrive.

See this as a fresh start, an opportunity to think about realigning the focus of the role that they’re leaving vacant for the better. It could also be a good time to give a well-deserved promotion to a remaining member of the team, meaning you won’t need to start from scratch in finding someone new.

Don’t take it personally

Yes, it’s very easy to feel offended as a manager when an employee quits on you. While there can be a lot of truth in the saying that ‘employees leave managers, not companies’, there may also be other factors at play, so you should always investigate these before concluding that the employee is resigning due to your management style.

In any case, the decision to leave a company is a deeply personal one to that individual, with the key factors often being very different from one resignation to the next. So, don’t jump to any conclusions without having an honest conversation with the employee – which leads me to my next point.

Find out what their reasons for leaving are

This is definitely a time for listening, rather than talking. Try to find out what reasons might exist, beyond what your departing employee may have initially told you.

Are there lessons that you can learn for the future? Perhaps there are ingrained issues that leave a continuing risk of further employee resignations in the future, and which you therefore need to tackle right now? However, if the problem is your management style, see this as a learning opportunity that will lead you to become a better and more self-aware manager.

It may also appear that the employee has made a somewhat heat-of-the-moment decision, in which case, it might be worth proposing a short cooling-off period, giving them time to consider whether they really are making the best decision.

If you think that a counter offer could help the employee to change their mind, ask them whether they would consider this and what they would be looking for if so.

Start writing the job description

If you have no viable choice other than to recruit a replacement, then it’s important you take a balanced and measured approach to hiring – don’t rush, but equally don’t procrastinate and stall the process, either.

Unless your requirements for the vacancy really are the same as when you initially hired your departing employee, the job description that you write shouldn’t be a merely rehashed version of the old one. Instead think about how you might change and optimise the job description to attract the best possible candidates.

Such considerations might include whether certain qualifications and experience really are as crucial now as they were when you last recruited for this position, as well as whether certain tasks performed by the exiting employee can now be taken on by someone else, or even dropped altogether.

Communicate the news across the team

When you do so, recognise the contribution of the departing employee. Get a letter of resignation in writing and convey the resignation quickly to the immediate team and your HR team, so that they remain engaged and rumours don’t start circulating.

You should also be communicating at this time with key stakeholders, reassuring them of how they will continue to be supported during the transition period.

Seek the exiting employee’s support if required

It’s likely that when you are handing over and recruiting for a replacement, the person best-placed to appreciate the next steps that you need to take will be the departing employee themselves.

So, if you feel the need to do so, ask them for their thoughts on what skills and experience will be needed in whoever takes their place – and indeed, whether the right candidate may already be in the company. It’s also a good idea to ask them to put together a detailed handover.

Conduct a formal exit interview

This will be a key final step in your efforts to further understand why the employee is leaving, while also helping to ensure the worker leaves on a positive note and on good terms.

Why you need to change the way you view quitters

As I said earlier, employees will resign and you need to do everything you can to respond in the best way possible – because it will happen to you sooner or later.

Here, then, are some further tips for changing the way you think about people who resign:

Keep things in perspective

No matter what we do as managers and leaders, people are always going to leave our companies – that’s just reality, and something that every people manager needs to contend with from time to time. It’s certainly not the end of the world.

Realise that you’ve done a brilliant job of managing this person

After all, you’ve upskilled and developed this person so well, that other businesses are interested in employing them. This is a credit to you, so give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done.

You should be driving your team’s development

No one wants to see a valued employee of theirs leave, but it’s an unfortunate by-product of developing your employees so well that other organisations would seek their services in the first place.

The answer isn’t to restrict your employees’ personal development opportunities, as this will simply accelerate their decision to look for a role elsewhere.

Instead, if an employee of yours has found an opportunity at another organisation that enables them to develop themselves in a way that your own company can’t offer, you should see it as your duty to understand why they are leaving, and to support them in pursuing their ambitions.

Keep in contact with the departed employee

After all, you can never know for sure whether your paths might cross again, and indeed, whether you may eventually work together again in some capacity. It doesn’t serve your company’s interests (or indeed your own) to shun or unnecessarily distance yourself from a talented former employee.

Have open conversations about career trajectories

By conducting open and upfront conversations with your employees about their career paths and ambitions, you will be able to gain far better sight of where they want to go.

This, in turn, will assist you with the planning of your team, in the process helping to future-proof your talent pipelines.

By Travis O’Rourke

Travis O’Rourke is president of Hays Canada. A version of this article previously appeared on the Hays blog.

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