When An Employee Quits: What to Say, What to Do

Letting go employees

Humility.  It’s the emotion you’ll feel the first time one of your employees resigns.  You’ll likely ask yourself a few pointed questions:  Did I do something wrong?  Can I convince them to change their mind?  Are they just using this as leverage to get something they want?

All good questions.  When an employee gives their notice that they will be leaving, it can be tough to swallow.  But [mostly] gone are the days when people spend their entire careers at the same place.  Ultimately, employees will quit and resign on a periodic basis.  And while you can do your best to keep them happy, there are just some things you cannot control.  Let’s explore some of the things you should say and do when an employee let’s you know they are leaving.

Bottom line: Don’t take it personally.

Why Employees Quit: It’s Not Necessarily You

Not that we need a lengthy discussion here, but it’s worth a few words.  There is a generally held belief out there that an employee “leaves their manager, not the job.”  In very general terms, this is a fair statement.  One of the primary roles of a manager is to keep employees challenged, motivated, and engaged.  Easier said than done, of course, but an employee often quits because he or she is displeased with some aspect of their job that in theory the manager could have addressed.  But as we know, theory is only good for textbooks.

Maybe they got tired waiting for that promotion, or grew bored of working on the same thing project and lost hope of seeing anything new.  While he or she may have legitimate concerns with you as the supervisor, we as managers are also not omni-powerful.  And we simply cannot provide everything our employees want.  While we should do everything we can to retain our good employees, there are just some things we can’t control.  Maybe that promotion you’ve been trying to get for them has not been approved.  Or perhaps you simply don’t have any new assignments to give at this time.

My own example:  I recently had an employee leave my team.  She came in my office, and nervously blurted out a short, well-rehearsed speech, the end of which she said her last day would be on the 30th of that month. While I was a bit caught of guard, I was not terribly surprised by the news.  She recently had a baby and while she came back to work for about 6 months, she had decided to become a full-time mom, at least until her child was in school.  Not much I could do about that, so I smiled and said she would be missed.

There are a number of reasons why employees may quit their jobs and leave your team:

  1. Taking a job that better suits their long-term interests
  2. A spouse accepts a job in another city
  3. Leaving to be closer to family
  4. Departing for better pay
  5. Quitting based on medical concerns
  6. Pursuing a totally new career
  7. Concerns with the direction of the overall organization

There are plenty of reasons why employees leave.  And while there certainly can be some things we as the manager did (or didn’t do) to motivate them to leave, sometimes it is rooted in something completely unrelated.  Bottom line, don’t take it personally.  Accept it, and move on.


What to Say When an Employee Resigns

When an employee comes to you to submit their resignation, don’t forget it’s usually awkward for him or her to tell you, just as it can be for you to listen to it.  So the last thing you want to do is to panic and freak out in front of your employee, even if you really want to.  Keep it light, talk through the situation and have a professional dialogue.  Unless there are particularly sour or difficult circumstances, let the employee speak and give your their position so you can understand.

Here are 7 key questions you will want to ask when an employee quits:

  1. If I may ask, what is motivating you to leave?  Please be specific.
  2. Are there any particular circumstances that contributed to this decision?
  3. Are there any critical issues or deadlines coming up we need to plan for?
  4. Can you recommend someone who could easily take over your activities?
  5. How do you want this to be communicated to the team?
  6. Do you have any questions about the separation process?
  7. When should we plan to have your last day?

Should I Counter?

In one word: no.  The first time I put in my notice to my boss, he quickly asked “Is there anything we can do to change your mind?”  Fortunately, I was prepared for the question and said “No, I’m sorry, I’ve accepted the other position and need to fulfill that commitment which I made after careful consideration.”

I could have said “Yes, but you’ll have to give me a 30% increase in pay and a promotion in order to beat what they offered me.”  But in reality, I wanted to leave the company.  I did not like the direction it was going, I had ethical concerns about how the company treated it’s customers and I really just wanted to go off and try something new.  Even if they had countered, I would have left not long after for the same reasons.

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What is the biggest management challenge you are facing right now?
  • Limited resources or availability
  • Employee performance issues
  • Employee or staff morale
  • Workload and working hours
  • Conflicting goals of the organization
  • Limited mentoring for your own career

Counter offering is usually unproductive.  As was the case for me, whatever it is that is motivating your employee to leave is unlikely to change just by throwing in a little extra cash.  You may convince the employee to stay a little longer, but trust will have eroded and it’s likely they will still be gone in a year anyway.  Most of the time, it’s best to just part ways on a positive note.

RELATED: What to Say When an Employee Has Been Fired

There is an exception to this.  That initial open dialog you have with the employee can be valuable and sometimes you can make it work out for both of you.  If the employee is leaving as his or her spouse is taking a job in a different city, for example, you may be able to offer to have them stay in their position as a remote employee.  If they are leaving to spend more time with the kids, perhaps they would be open to working part-time.  It’s worth exploring such options if you feel it is appropriate.  But just trying to hold on to them by putting a bandage over dissatisfaction will never work.


What to Do When an Employee Quits

There are 6 main actions you should take after the employee put in his or her notice.

1.  Communicate to Your Own Management and Other Employees

Bad news doesn’t get better with time.  Get the news out their to your boss and communicate to the team in a team meeting.  Wait until you have the details of the employee’s last day and related information established.  Then, set up a short meeting with your staff and have the employee share their news.  Be professional, thank the employee for his or her dedication and hard work, and wish them luck.  A question you should be prepared to answer is whether or not the employee will be replaced, or if his or her work will be absorbed by the remaining team.

2.  Establish Transitions Plans

While the employee is still in the office, quickly establish transition plans of assignments and projects (even if only temporary, until a permanent replacement arrives).  This will maximize another employee’s time to get involved before the departing team-member is gone.

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3.  Communicate to Stakeholders

Once the internal team knows what’s going on, alert any key stakeholders, such as customers, suppliers and other external individuals who will be affected by the departure of your employee.  Since you have a transition plan established, you should introduce him or her to the various parties at the earliest opportunity.

4.  Have the Employee Make a Cheat Sheet

Any time I have an employee leave, even if just for another internal position, I ask them to product a ‘cheat sheet.’  A cheat sheet is a list of file locations, file names, documents, points of contact, project status, challenges, etc. of everything they’ve been working on.  Undoubtedly, after they leave this information will be needed at some point, by someone.

RELATED: How to Overcome Your Predecessor

5.  Hold an Exit Interview, or Exit Survey

As much as it can hurt when an employee quits and is on his or her way out the door, it’s a great time to get some raw, candid feedback.  Have an HR representative spend time with the employee to get feedback on the organization.  What motivated them to leave the business?  Was there a specific thing or event that triggered their search?  If they were to stay, what would they want to be changed?  How can the organization improve?  While some feedback may come back a bit raw and a bit slanted, you can usually gather some good intel on the state of affairs of the organization.  Even if there is no formal process at your company, make it happen somehow.

6.  Outline End of Employment Activities

Make arrangements for the formalities of a resignation.  Shut off their IT connections, collect their company credit card, their laptop and their badge.  Regardless of the circumstances, it’s always good to have a going away party of sorts, so that other employees can say their farewell.  If there is a morale problem in the department and other employees see someone leave without much appreciation or recognition, what are you really saying?

Losing an employee is a tough experience for any manager.  Resignations are never timely, and are always going to throw things out of balance (communication, workloads, schedules).  Even the best managers will have an employee leave for one reason or another.  But by following these actions, you can minimize the blow on everyone and keep things moving through what can sometimes be a little bit of a bumpy ride.


Looking for More? Check Out:

7 Ways to Boost Employee Morale

How to Manager Your Friend

Building a New Team from Scratch



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