Be Gracious When Employees Leave

I’d have to say that most leaders are pretty good at this, but even so they fight down some feelings that might get away from them if they aren’t careful.

You hired someone and took a chance on them. You were patient when they screwed up. You had the difficult conversations you were avoiding and they responded well. You spent money and allowed them to spend time on training opportunities. You defended them when you didn’t have to after a client got mad. You overlooked their lack of performance when some personal struggle spilled over into the work environment. You stretched a little to reward them with that pay raise.

And then they repay you by leaving? And with only two weeks’ notice?

In the moment, it doesn’t seem like the sort of loyalty you were expecting, but you know the other team members are watching to see how you’re reacting. And of course some of them knew about this before you did. Hah.

How you react to this person isn’t really going to impact your relationship with them (with one exception)—they’re gone, after all—but it matters a lot to the others who are still there, and it matters to who you are as a person, too, so let’s talk about that.

How We Got Here

Remember that this is absolutely normal behavior. It wasn’t too long ago that the way to build a career (and the pay that came with it) was to stay at a company forever, earning a silly watch you’d never wear every five years, but steadily earning pay increases and better vesting in the “defined benefit” plan.

No more, though, and that’s because the geographic moats around your opportunities, your competition, and your employee base…were obliterated. And it all became far more competitive, too, and so other firms worked to upgrade their team by poaching someone from yours.

And that, my friends, is precisely how you make money these days: leave rather than stay. And so they do. And so how should you respond?

Half Dozen Reasons Why

I think you should always take the high road, and here’s why:

  • It’s natural to overreact in the moment. You’ll calm down a little and your better self will appear later. Bite your lip and don’t say anything that you’ll regret, or even imply something non-verbally.
  • The remaining team members—the ones who matter the most right now—are watching, and if you say or hint at anything unfair, their first thought will be: “ah, I see that could happen to me, too. I guess I’m out of here eventually, then, and when I do leave, I’m sure not going to have an open conversation ahead of time.”
  • This’ll save you from overpaying yet one more employee. Remember, overpaid employees are the ones who have been there a long time, who take some other thing off your plate that you absolutely detest doing, and anyone who knows what other people are making.
  • You’ll bring new blood into the firm, and maybe even learn new things from whoever the replacement is. Good, strong employee turnover (for the right reasons) is good for your firm. Don’t fight it. Your systems will be better, other people will get an opportunity to climb, and a half dozen other reasons.
  • Mainly, rebound employees are some of the absolutely best people you’ll ever employ. They learned on your watch, and then they come back because they appreciate so much of what they miss. There are zero mysteries when you rehire someone, and so you want to leave that possibility wide open. You’d be surprised at how many people come back to be your no. 2…or even to purchase the firm from you. If nothing else, they might refer a good team member or two your way.
  • Well, I already used “mainly,” but the truth is that it’s just the right thing to do. What are you hoping to accomplish by being petulant when someone leaves? Nothing is accomplished and it feels empty.

And Best of All?

At the risk of repeating myself, here’s an important closing thought: your clients won’t remember you in ten years, but every person who worked for you will remember your management style forever.

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