How to Handle Resignations

Your team member asks you to meet unexpectedly. You sit down (or join a Zoom), and they tell you something like, “I found a new opportunity. I’m giving my 2 week notice.” What do you say? How do you react?

You should respond “Congratulations, I wish you the best in your next role,” and mean it. That’s it.

Ok, that’s not quite it. But those who get it, get it. For those reading on, let me backtrack.

I’ve resigned from a few jobs over the years (all voluntary!), for a variety of reasons: unhappiness with my career growth, compensation, manager, and/or company culture. I left one great job because I went to grad school, and another because I moved countries.

I’ve only left one job because of a manager, and even then, it wasn’t the only driver. So tangentially, I don’t buy into the cliche “people don’t leave companies, they leave managers”. Sometimes people leave a company despite having a great manager.

I’ve witnessed a range of how employees get treated on their way out, which has shaped my views on it. Given that it’s the “Great Resignation”, I thought it’d be a relevant topic to write about.

Things you SHOULD NOT DO

Don’t act like a beggar by offering:

  • A raise
  • That overdue promotion
  • A role change, project change, or team transfer

I call this the “I’m a pathetic manager” playbook, and I’ve never heard of it working. You may feel like it’s a good idea at the moment. You may feel desperate to hold on to them. But just don’t.

Raises, promotions, and general career growth, are all things you should have addressed well before the thought of leaving crossed their mind. Your employee has probably already signed a new job offer and is eager to start. It’s just too late to turn back the wheels of time.

It’s well known that money and titles aren’t the primary reasons people leave jobs. When you throw superficial incentives at someone, you’re displaying your own lack of understanding about the actual reasons. You’re effectively telling the employee “I had your raise / promotion sitting here the whole time, but I only gave it to you now because I blew it.”

This behavior also sets a weak precedent for anyone else who may want a raise or promotion. People talk. Before you know it, your entire team is extorting you.

Don’t ask them to spend the next 2 weeks documenting everything they ever did so you can drop a fat “hand off” encyclopedia on the rest of your team. I’ve seen graveyards of such documents. They’re usually not useful because they were produced by a mentally checked out employee. And in my experience, they’re hardly looked at by the rest of the team.

Basic hand offs are fine, such as who you’ll assign as backups for active projects. I consider anything more than that as succession planning, which can’t be done properly in 2 weeks. It’s like trying to produce documents for an IRS audit when you haven’t kept any receipts — good luck!

This too is something you should have addressed while they were still your employee. It’s called key person risk, and it should be top of mind for a manager to mitigate regularly.

Here are some more things you should never do. It’s common sense, but that’s not so common these days…

  • Insult them
  • Guilt them
  • Tell them to stay silent, because you’ll “handle the communications”
  • Announce the resignation to others and frame it as a good thing for the company. This “power move” actually makes leadership look disgraceful.

Things You Can Do

As a wise manager taught me, the two most valuable time periods of an employee’s tenure are when they’re joining a company, and when they’re leaving. So if you want the feedback and aren’t afraid of a reality check, consider the following playbook:

  • When you first hear the news, say “Congrats”. Smile, wish them well, listen. This assumes someone told you they found a new role and are giving their notice. If someone pulls off a stunt like the burger scene from Half Baked, act accordingly.
  • Ask them to email HR and copy you, specifying their intended last day.
  • Ask them how they’d like to transition out. You should have a contingency plan for them, but let them take the lead. If there’s any chance of a smooth transition, they have to feel involved.
  • Ask them if they’re comfortable discussing further in a few days because you’d be interested in their feedback. It’s important to give them a few days to reflect. It also shows that you’re calm, mature, and non-judgmental about the situation, which will facilitate open feedback next time you meet.
  • Ask more about what were their reasons for looking elsewhere. Just listen and take some notes. Do not judge, argue, or disagree.
  • Ask if there was a particular event that triggered them to start looking elsewhere. There’s usually a trigger, and I learned what it was a few times.
  • Suggest that they should also share feedback with HR (even if it’s about you).
  • Share your notes with your superiors and/or HR. They’re valuable.
  • Share the news with your team verbally and follow up by email. It’s important to address the situation head-on, otherwise you appear like you’re a river in Egypt (denial). It’s very weird and concerning when you learn after the fact that someone is no longer at the company, and that the manager tried to keep it discreet.
  • Consider a going away party / happy hour if the employee was an all-star and left for non-competitive reasons (e.g. retired, moved, went back to school). Otherwise you don’t need to celebrate a resignation. Being neutral (and professional) should be the default.

Summary

It’s important to leave things on good terms for many reasons. Practically speaking, you still want this employee to remember your company fondly, and to feel comfortable recommending people there. You don’t want angry exes out there writing nasty reviews on Glassdoor.

You or your company may choose to rehire this person in the future. You may even end up working for that person one day! Leave all doors open.

Lastly, resigning can be a difficult and emotional process for some. It’s important to be understanding and sympathetic to what they’re going through. To quote Maya Angelou, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Originally published at https://www.isaacpalka.com.

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