Leadership is put to the test as reactions to employee departures reveal if your company culture is truly authentic, or simply lip service. Beginnings and endings are bellwethers of healthy work culture. Too often leaders focus on entrances, which are often easier to celebrate, and neglect untimely exits . The moment when an employee leaves the company is where the rubber meets the road.
The end of a relationship tends to overwrite much of what came before. In many instances, ending a bad relationship well can soften the negative interactions that preceded it. Similarly, a great relationship that ends poorly can overshadow the good, and precipitate a polarizing future.
Because most leaders don’t have training in how to handle employee departures, they tend to avoid these experiences altogether. This behavior can be characterized as “ghosting,” an unskillful and unfortunate parting without notice or communication. To great detriment, ghosting has become normalized in the online dating world and is now seeping into work culture.
Not only does this practice lead to cultural backlash, it also runs counter to conscious leadership. As leaders, it’s our responsibility to preserve the psychological safety of all departing employees, regardless of the circumstances.
When an employee is terminated.
This is the most complicated type of ending. Leaders often find themselves double-bound in the case of a terminated employee. On one hand, legal constraints might prevent a leader from sharing the full picture to anyone internally, or even outside the company about what transpired. Some details might be shared, while other information is privileged and confidential. But on the other hand, if leaders don’t find a way to address it at all, they could compromise psychological safety for everyone in the office, which can result in engagement issues and attrition. Although complex, there are proactive steps you can take as a leader to facilitate a healthy departure.
Healthy steps to take when an employee is terminated
- Communicate the termination with the departing employee with empathy and clarity.
- Likewise, communicate the departure with the team in a timely manner without explicitly stating whether the employee quit or was terminated. These vague answers to remaining colleagues might be unsatisfying but can help build trust simply by opening the conversation.
- Avoid talking badly about the departed employee, even when more time has passed.
- Spend time in 1:1’s with all team members who worked closely with the departed employee. Make space for them to share their feelings and concerns.
- In some cases, offer retention bonus for adjacent employees to thank them for hanging in through tough times.
When an employee chooses to leave without notice
While this scenario is jarring, there is no choice but to handle it as gracefully as possible. An employee can choose to leave without notifying leadership or their team. Even in this circumstance, leaders must set aside their personal opinions and avoid making this employee out to be bad or wrong.
While the departing employee may be burning a bridge and is unlikely to receive a reference in the future, it is still important to respect their legacy. Many of your remaining employees could start to hyper-focus on the treatment of departing team members, realizing that they could be subject to the same treatment in the future.
When an employee chooses to leave with notice
Arguably the simplest departures to respond to, managers often mishandle these situations too. When a great employee quits it can feel like a punch in the stomach. Leaders often worry other employees might follow suit and trigger a negative spiral of attrition.
Some managers might become resentful and awkward, shunning the departing employee until their last day. In fact, “ghosting” the employee until they’re out the door is quite common. In many cases, this response sours existing positive relationships, prevents future collaboration, and guarantees the employee will not come back or refer other candidates.
Healthy steps to take when an employee gives notice
- Allow the departing employee to decide how they want the departure communicated to the broader team.
- Publicly thank the departing employee for their contributions, and support their future aspirations when appropriate.
- Have a goodbye ritual or tradition in place for departing employees
- Engage and spend concerted time with the departing employee before they leave.
- Offer to be a positive reference for the future.
Employee Departures Can Bring Up Strong Emotions
When good employees leave the company, it’s natural for the leader to feel upset. But that feeling isn’t an excuse for bad behavior, and doesn’t necessarily need to be hidden. A leader can openly share their disappointment while simultaneously remaining empathetic. “I’m really sad and disappointed that you’re leaving, but I’m also grateful for everything that you’ve given us while you’ve been here.”
When communicated skillfully, the employee hears their vacancy will be felt and they’ll feel appreciated for what they have contributed. A skilled response opens the door for good employees to return to the company, and refer other rock star candidates in the future.
Maintaining a healthy approach to all employee departures, reflects not only your personal leadership but also the health of your company culture. Practice conscious leadership and take the steps above to ensure the best possible outcomes during these difficult and inevitable transitions.