7 Ways for Leaders to Gracefully Accept a Resignation

So much has been written about how to successfully resign. But why do we treat resigning as a one-sided act?
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Head of Inclusion, Equity and Impact
8 min read
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“How could you leave? After everything I have done for you? I have shown you nothing but kindness!”

Hard to believe, but these are actually things my former manager said to me I told them I was resigning. 

It was not at all how I envisioned my resignation would go. I had practiced what I would say: I'd be short, to the point and professional. Resigning can be a bittersweet moment. You might be sad to be moving on and at the same time excited for your next chapter.

Related: Make Your Resignation Letter Polite, Even When You're Not Feeling It.

My former manager shouted and argued with me over why I resigned. It was awkward and uncomfortable, and my joy of moving on was momentarily snatched away from me. Over the course of my career, I've resigned a handful of times and unfortunately can only recall one somewhat positive experience.

So much has been written about how to successfully resign, what to say, what not to say and how to act in those last few weeks at your . But why do we treat resigning as a one-sided act? What responsibility do we have as leaders when someone resigns? How should we show up in these moments?

As individuals leave organizations in a time when so many are working remotely, it’s even more important to accept a resignation with kindness and grace. The journey of a pandemic resignation will be different: awkwardly saying good-bye to colleagues over video and shipping a laptop and employee ID back in a pre-labeled FedEx box. How you respond and support an individual when they resign will not only help them, but also help your teams with closure.

Here are seven ways leaders can gracefully accept resignations:

1. Say congratulations

Congratulate the person on the decision they have made, particularly if they share that they are moving on to another opportunity. If you are surprised or caught off guard, don’t make this conversation about you. Take the moment to say “Congratulations." There will be time to understand their decision to leave; now is not the moment.  

Given that many of us are working remotely, resignations are happening over the phone or video conference. If it’s over the phone or another audio channel, you have the opportunity to pause and recover from the shock of the . Take a deep breath. Show up the way you would want a leader to show up for you if you were resigning. 

2.  Be supportive; don't pressure them to accept a counter offer

Should they stay or should they go?

Some are moving on to a new opportunity, as select industries are still hiring during this pandemic. Don’t spend the time to put together and then pressure them to accept a counter offer if they are not open to it. According to a study by Eclipse Software, which focuses on recruitment, 80% of candidates who accept a counter offer from their current employer end up leaving within six months. The underlying issues of why they decided to look externally likely won’t change with more money and a better title.

Some are resigning not for another opportunity, but as a result of the pandemic. We know that working mothers have been leaving the workforce to take care of their children in the wake of schools and childcare centers closing. Others are in fear of leaving their homes for work and contracting coronavirus. And many are struggling with isolation and depression.

Don’t question or belittle their choice to resign. Be supportive. Let them know the door is open in the future if they would like to rejoin your organization.

Related: When Writing the 'I'm Moving On' Post, Channel Kenny Rogers

3. Don’t delay announcing their departure 

Be timely in announcing their departure to their organization. Delaying this announcement doesn’t change the outcome: They have made the decision to leave. As the leader, it’s your responsibility to share this news with key stakeholders and team on preferred company digital channels. When sharing this news, be sure to include the following: Thank them publicly for their commitment to the company, highlight key accomplishments and congratulate them on their next chapter.

If their role is a high-profile one, ensure it’s announced beyond their immediate team. Please don’t let be the first time people find out that the person has left the organization. It reflects poorly on you as a leader and the organization, and it puts the individual in an awkward position.

4. Be reasonable about transition workload

Those resigning can be expected to provide two weeks notice, depending on the role. They can be expected to brief the individual or team taking over their responsibilities, to create a transition document and to close out on any immediate short items.

It’s not their job to create the marketing strategy or a detailed proposed budget for a campaign, all of which would have been due in six months. This is not the time to squeeze an entire year’s worth of work in the last two weeks. Accept what they say as their last working day; don’t expect for them to work past that.

Be open to any proposals they might have on how to split up the work or add headcount. Do not react negatively if they expressed they have been overworked, especially as resources have been cut during this pandemic. Be open to recommendations on any individuals they believe could do the job.  At the same time, it’s not their job to recommend anyone. It’s your job as a leader to find a successor. 

5. Ensure they have an exit interview

Why are they leaving?

If they are not comfortable expressing to you why they are leaving, now is not the time to pressure them. Let them know you are open to hearing about their experiences, even if they want to connect after they have left the organization.

The exit interview is one formalized way to understand why they are leaving. Be sure to connect with the people team on why they left. Does the team need more resources in terms of headcount and budget? Do you need to prioritize what initiatives are critical and stop work that’s no longer relevant in this pandemic? Does the company need to provide more support to those individuals working remotely?

This an opportunity to set up their successor for success in this role. If you don’t address any of the root causes of their resignation, you will replace them only to have the next individual resign as well.

Related: Ready to Quit Your Current Venture? Consider These 3 Questions First

6. Celebrate them

Although it’s harder to celebrate in a remote world, it’s still critical to honor the time they spent at the company. Now is not the time to bad mouth them, gossip or declare that the organization is better off without them.

You might not be able to gather in a conference room with a sheet cake and champagne, but there are many ways to celebrate them. You can create a virtual greeting card with personalized messages from colleagues. You can send flowers, cookies, a fruit basket; anything that would be a small gesture of appreciation. You can mail a hand-written congratulatory note highlighting their key contributions.

Finally, if you do host a virtual event, plan appropriately so people don’t awkwardly stare at the person who is leaving. Ask people in advance to be prepared to share their stories about your colleague. For those who can’t attend, capture their thoughts on video. Or create a trivia game with questions about their time at the organization and fun facts about them using technology like Kahoot. 

7. Leave the door open 

The world is a smaller place than we realize. You might have an opportunity to rehire this individual at your current organization, or in another organization in the future. This individual might be in a position to hire you some day, serve as a reference or be asked about you in their networks. How you handle their resignation will determine which doors stay open and which doors remain closed in the future for both of you.

Related: 12 Entrepreneurial Traits That Will Tempt You to Quit Your Job Immediately

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