3 Tips for Dealing With the Inevitable Departure of Key Employees
My father's generation, and many before him, had very defined expectations about work and careers. When they were young, they were expected to go to school or learn a trade, then work in the same job their entire career -- and most of them did.
My generation (the X Generation) was one of the first generations to buck this trend. We had the same expectations -- to go to school or learn a trade, then work in the same job our entire career -- but we did not. Instead, we moved from company to company and even changed careers once or twice.
Future generations of business professionals entering the workforce now have altogether different expectations, namely that they will go to school or learn a trade, but they are not expected to work in the same job or even stay in the same profession throughout their careers.
This evolution of attitudes is important, because for the next decade or two, we can expect that this generational mix of career expectations will be represented in and influencing our workplaces, with older workers expecting focus and loyalty while younger workers expecting choice and flexibility.
While businesses continue to evolve themselves in order to retain key employees, the fact is that this trend of regular off-boarding is not likely to change. At no time is this trend better demonstrated than in January, after all year-end quotas are met, bonuses paid and equity options vested, when we see more and more employees leaving for new opportunities.
Businesses therefore should be prepared to deal with this paradigm shift, and rather than ignoring or taking offense at an employee leaving, look to make the experience positive for you and your team with these tips.
1. Plan ahead of time.
First and foremost, all management teams need a plan to deal with the departure of an employee, critical or otherwise. It starts with having a thorough job description for each position in your organization. Beyond the job description, employers should document and regularly update ongoing tasks and responsibilities of each employee, as well as key personnel, customers and vendors that the employee interacts with daily. Having and updating this information often ensures that you are not rushing to compile it as your employee is walking out the door.
Succession planning also requires that you have an ongoing process for monitoring and replacing employees, especially key employees, in the off chance they depart quickly and unexpectedly.
Planning ahead of time for the inevitable challenge of a departing employee not only makes the process easier, it allows the departing employee to leave quickly without lingering and creating an atmosphere among the remaining team that could ultimately hurt motivation and productivity and threaten security.
2. Embrace change.
Entrepreneurs need to adopt the expectation that it is not a matter of "if" but "when" a key employee will leave. Fred Wilson, a successful venture capitalist and founder of Union Square Ventures, certainly is no stranger to the fast-paced and high-turnover world of technology startups. As someone who has millions of dollars invested in companies, one would think that he would cringe at the thought of the disruption caused by the departure of key team members.
Instead, Wilson encourages entrepreneurs to embrace change, saying, "(E)very departure is an opportunity to rethink the role and the organization. You can’t find an exact replica of the person who has left. But you can find a person who will bring different things."
3. Never burn a bridge.
It is natural to feel disappointed, upset and even betrayed when an employee leaves, especially if you have put any amount of effort into training, nurturing and trusting that employee. Instead of allowing the employee to leave on a sour note, embrace his or her new opportunity and support the move. By making the already uncomfortable task of leaving easier, you create a brand ambassador for your compay who can spread the gospel of your culture and ultimately attract new talent.
Additionally, treating departing employees with the respect they deserve encourages them to cooperate and work with you and your team to make certain that their responsibilities and institutional knowledge are transitioned during and even after their departure.
In the end, employees leave for any number of reasons. Perhaps they have outgrown the opportunities or seek more responsibilities than are available at your organization. Perhaps they are seeking to strike out on their own and start their own business. Perhaps your culture did not evolve or mature the way they anticipated. Or, perhaps they simply seek a change of scenery for their family.
Whatever the reason, entrepreneurs need to understand that employee off-boarding is not only a regular part of business these days, but also that it could create positive opportunities for both you and your departing team member.
And who knows, maybe after gaining valuable training, experience and life skills at another’s expense, they can return and add even more value to your organization.