What do you do when an employee suddenly resigns?

Posted on 14th June 2017

So, it’s Friday afternoon, you’ve had a decent week and you’re looking forward to the weekend. Just before home time, a member of your staff comes to see and requests a private meeting and before you can say POETS day, they hand you their resignation. Once you get over the shock, how do you respond? How is their work going to be covered? Why?

Unexpected resignations can present big challenges for managers and business owners, especially for those unaccustomed to dealing with them. It might be something that has not happened for some time or it could be the first time it has happened to you. Sudden employee departures are especially hard on the psyche. If you’ve grown to really rely on that person you may feel a number of emotions; alone, let down, deserted, betrayed, worried. This blog will try and give you some tips to help you manage the separation and make the transition as smooth as possible.

  1. Have a plan

Large organisations with HR Departments will (or should have) a plan for such eventualities. If you’re a smaller business with no HR Department that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a plan too. This maybe depend on circumstances; for example, if they are going to a competitor put them on garden leave for their notice period. During this time they are still under the obligations in their employment contract. The notice period should be as stated in their contract of employment along with any restrictive covenants, which may prevent them working for a competitor for a specified period of time. Take away any ID cards, IT access, equipment etc. Remember though, if they are on garden leave they are entitled to their full salary and benefits.

If you think this is a little draconian and/or they are not leaving to join a competitor, you may want them to work their notice and perhaps the next working day you can agree handover. What you do will depend on the circumstances, but knowing what to do is important.

  1. Don’t ‘go off on one’

Although this might be what you are feeling inside, don’t get over emotional, angry and start immediately asking questions. Take a breath and think of point 1. Even though you may be angry, try and engage in a pleasant and professional way. In the world of work today, people come and go more often and it is important to maintain relationships. Someone once told me, never burn your bridges no matter what the circumstances, as you never know when you might need them in the future. It was very wise advice. The same applies when staff leave; how you handle it reflects on you and your business.

  1. Ask for the reason WHY

Once the dust has settled, it is still important to understand why. If they say “for more money” dig deeper, as it very rarely is. Although that may be a consequence of the new job, the fact that they were looking in the first place normally has its roots in other factors, which may include you. Alternatively, it could be for personal reasons, e.g. their partner is moving from the area for a new position, or another personal reasons. This could be an opportunity to offer support and help if you can.

  1. Counter offer or not to counter offer, that is the question!

I have lost count of the number of times this has cropped up in my career so far. In my experience, counter offers very rarely work in the medium or long term. As mentioned before, money is rarely the reason for leaving and if they accept the counter offer, the actual reason(s) for leaving will still be there. All it does is give them more bargaining power somewhere else. There may be exceptional circumstances where it may be appropriate – there are always exceptions – however, a better strategy could be to maintain relationships and re-recruit in a year’s time.

  1. Collaborate and communicate

You can’t control how others react to the news, but you can control how it gets communicated. Look at collaborating with your exiting employee on how to best present the departure. Say, ‘Let’s talk about what you’re going to say and what I’m going to say.’ Does the employee prefer to tell others one-on-one? Would you, the boss, like to make an announcement? Should the news circulate via email? Be honest and open when communicating the departure to others. Explain the circumstance in plain language and assure them you are working hard to find a suitable replacement and doing your best to make the transition as smooth as possible.

  1. Make a recruitment plan

If you are going to replace, make a plan. This could be an opportunity for you to reorganise and create opportunities for existing staff. Turn it into a positive for the rest of the staff. It may be the opportunity you’ve been looking for to restructure.

  1. Have a party

Now this may seem counter intuitive, but as I’ve said before, how a person leaves is important. Remember those bridges. It doesn’t have to be a lavish affair but wish them well (even if they are going to a competitor; they may want to come back). It will send the message that employees are not just plug in here today, gone tomorrow commodities, but are valued.

  1. Take time to reflect

Good managers should never be truly surprised when an employee announces they are leaving. As a manager, you need to be aware of people’s interests and needs. You should know what they want to do, and you should be able to tell when someone is tired of their job, is not engaged, or has life changes afoot — like a move or a spouse transfer — that make a resignation likely. If this news did indeed blindside you, it is incumbent on you to start having more contact with your team so that you know what they want for their future and can predict or prevent these situations going forward.

Emma Wynne Character
Written by:
Emma Wynne
Managing Director
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