Monday Mornings with Madison

What To Do (and Not Do) When An Employee Resigns

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Estimated Read Time: 7 min.

As sure as death and taxes, business owners, leaders and managers should absolutely expect most employees to resign over time.  Almost no one works at the same company their entire career anymore unless they are related to the owners or are part of the top leadership.  That means probably over 90% of all employees will eventually leave.  Employee turnover is inevitable.  They resign for all kinds of reasons.  More about that later, but suffice to say that the reasons vary a lot.  And, they matter a lot.

Also, how an employer – whether it’s the owner or a manager or someone in HR — handles the employee’s exit matters a lot too.  After all, while most employees may need a good reference, every single employer needs positive reviews from past employees, especially in a tight job market.  Employee reviews – which are now available on sites like Glassdoor for the world to see — influence whether top talent will even consider working for a particular company in the future.  If a company has a reputation for mistreating employees or mismanaging processes, that ill repute is like skunk odor… potent and rather adhesive.  Employees who resign can go out in the world and share their uninhibited, bluntly-honest thoughts about the company to anyone who asks or listens.  So, how employers deal with resignations can have a profound influence on what former employees say later.

Why do Employees Leave?

Let us start by considering why employees resign.  In general, people leave their jobs for a multitude of reasons.  But, here are the top five reasons[1]:

1 Limited Career Opportunities / Advancement – 42%

2 Compensation / Benefits – 36%

3 People Management / Bad Boss – 35%

4 Development Opportunity / No Growth – 31%

5 Insufficient Recognition – 29%

Those have been consistently at the top of the list for many years, according to a 2016 report by CEB, a Washington-based best-practice insight and technology company.   CEB also reported that 70% of employees are currently dissatisfied with future career opportunities at their organization.[2]

That study also looked at whenworkers were more likely to quit.  They found that what most affected employees was their perception of how they were doing in comparison with othersin their peer group or their career progression at a particular point in life versus where they had thought they would be. Moments of introspection that caused employees to make comparisons (reality vs. where I thought I would be or where I wanted to be; or how I’m treated vs. how others are treated) were triggers for people to change jobs.[3]

  1. After a work anniversary (either of joining the company or of moving into a particular role), job hunting increased 6-9%.
  2. After a milestone birthday (turning 30, 40 or 50), job hunting increased 12%.
  3. After a class or family reunion, job hunting increased 16%.

Given this, employers can take proactive steps to stem the flow of employee turnover.  This is certainly more effective than trying to take measures after a person resigns.  Studies show that 50% of all people who decide to stay at a job (after they initially resigned and then got a counter offer) end up leaving the company within 12 months anyway.

A Former Employee Is Not A Traitor

Ultimately, all companies must deal with some attrition no matter how hard an organization works on retention.  The question, then, is how employers should handle resignations.  Sadly, some companies treat employees who resign like traitors.  An employee’s decision to leave a company may be viewed by the employer through a personal and emotional lens of betrayal.  But, given that the average time a person works for a company today is about two to three years, that means most companies will need to deal with resignations on a regular basis.  For that reason alone, it is more beneficial for all to adopt a healthier attitude.

Rather than taking an adversarial tack, employers should adopt a positive approach. Here are some steps that help companies to position themselves well with outgoing employees:

1. Wish him/her the best in all future endeavors.

While an employee’s departure from the company may be sad news for the organization, it is likely to be a positive step for that person’s life and/or career. Wishing him/her well shows that the company genuinely values the soon-to-be-former employee’s future.  That validates that the person was not just a cog in the machinery, but a valued individual.  A company that treats resigning employees well will earn a positive reputation.

Don’t: Do not berate an employee who resigned and then escort him/her to his/her desk to collect his/her things and then to the door, as if he/she committed a crime.  Companies that fear a departing employee will steal clients or company files may not realize that the employee knew long before resigning that he/she was leaving.  If a departing employee wants to do something unethical, he/she would have had plenty of time to do it before resigning.  So when an employee gives notice, consider that time a gift to start searching for a suitable replacement and devise a smooth transition that lessens the burden on remaining staff.

2. Tell an employee who resigns that he/she is always welcome back.

Of course, there would need to be an opening if the person wanted to return, but hiring back a former employee is usually a smart move.  There is a much shorter ‘ramp up time’ for a former employee to become productive than for someone who is completely new to the organization.  And, if the former employee was successful before, then there is less concern about how such a rehire would fit into the organization’s corporate culture.  Also, a rehire is a ‘proven quality’ versus a new hire, which may or may not live up to what their resume says.

Don’t: Do not malign the employee’s past work or say ‘good riddance.’ No employee whose work is bad-mouthed will ever consider returning.

3. Treat a resigning employee with the same respect and courtesy as current, valued employees.

Even an employee, who is leaving because of bad blood with his/her supervisor, probably still has positive relationships with some of the coworkers and/or good feelings about the organization.  By treating that person with respect, good feelings can be preserved and will help temper online comments.

Don’t: Do not insult, ignore or avoid the resigning employee during their remaining time at the company.  Those hard feelings will not only sour the resigning employee toward the company, but will also likely taint anything they say about the company at future conferences, seminars, association meetings or other professional settings.  No company wants to end up on the annual “Worst Companies to Work For”list compiled for the last seven years by 24/7 Wall St.  For the list, they analyze thousands of employee reviews posted on Glassdoor, which has a database of more than 8 million employee reviews for more than 540,000 companies worldwide.[4] Companies on the “Worst Companies” list will have a harder time attracting top talent.

4. Ask why he/she is leaving.

Exit interviews are invaluable.  The truth sometimes hurts but it can help an organization correct mistakes, improve areas of weakness and fix flaws.  There is no getting better until and unless a problem is diagnosed.  If there is a faulty process that is costing the company tons of money, it may only be at an exit interview that a departing employee will openly discuss the situation with HR.  What a departing employee says about the company’s people, processes and policies is likely to be more honest, insightful and trusted than what anyone else may say.  It is an opportunity to make a good company even better.

5. Ask what things he/she thinks that the company should change or improve.

Beyond the reason for leaving, an employee who has resigned may be able to share insights and identify issues that were hidden for fear of hurting or offending other employees.  Coworkers are often loath to hurt one another, but more apt to speak honestly when they know they are on their way out the door.  Sometimes, the biggest contribution an employee makes is in the information provided at the exit interview.  Ways to improve processes often arise from feedback given by an out-going employee.

6. Ask him/her to stay and tell him what things the company is prepared to change or improve.

If the employee is valued and leaving only because of something that the company can fix, then ask the employee to reconsider and offer to make the changes needed.  If there are no opportunities for advancement, create opportunities for the employee to do challenging work.  That is a win-win for both the company and the employee.  If schedule flexibility is the issue, offer opportunities for remote work or flexible hours.  Chances are that the issues that were troubling that employee may be a problem for other employees as well as new ones.

7. If the employee chooses to leave anyway, wish him/her goodbye in the nicest way possible.

Companies that go the extra mile in making a ‘fare-thee-well’ send-off special for a departing employee shows other employees that staff are valued.  Giving a departing employee a card with a kind sentiment that is signed by everyone in the department is deeply appreciated. For example, the card could say: “Farewell to a great employee. Your hard work and dedication were an important part of our team. As you turn the page in your life’s story, we join together in wishing you every success in all your future endeavors.”  It might be too late to keep the employee from leaving, but it might make the employee more likely to want to return in the future.

8. Make an effort to keep in touch with former employees after the leave.

When an employee leaves the company, it is smart to stay in touch or at least keep tabs from time to time.  That employee may be able to refer quality candidates or answer questions that no one else may be qualified to answer in a pinch.  That employee might also be able to do freelance work for the company, providing a cadre of additional labor / talent during a huge project or situation.

The final reason for treating resigning employees well is that they are people who deserve to be treated with kindness and respect.  Besides what it says about the company, it is also just the right thing to do.  Resigning employees are not the enemy.  Some employees are with a company for a reason or a season.  A few are with a company for a lifetime.  In either case, they were of benefit to the company and shared time with the staff.  Those are reasons enough to part on good terms.

Quote of the Week

״It might take a while, but it is always possible to find the ‘good’ in good-bye.״ Anonymous


[1]April, 2016, Report:  The New Path Forward:  Creating Compelling  Careers for Employees  and Organizations, CEB Corporate Leadership Council, http://www.cemla.org/actividades/2016/2016-04-RecursosHumanos/2016-04-RecursosHumanos4.pdf

[2]September 2016 issue, Employee Retention, Why People Quit Their Jobs, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2016/09/why-people-quit-their-jobs

[3]Ibid.

[4]June 19, 2018, Suneson, Grant and Stebbins, Samuel, 24/7 Wall St., https://247wallst.com/special-report/2018/07/19/worst-companies-to-work-for-ta/4/

© 2018, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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