Exit Stage Left: What To Do When Someone Leaves…

by Mark Ellwood

What to do when a person does leave?

In our previous blogs, we’ve covered how to tell if someone is thinking of leaving. But what to do when a person does leave?  The impact this will have depends on several variables, especially how much responsibility that person had and how key they were to the team and projects they were involved with. You’ll need to take a multi-tasking approach to this and balance activities carefully. 


Here are our top-10 tips:


1. Take it on the chin

No matter how unwelcome the news is for you personally, or for the company, it’s important to congratulate the exiting employee and to celebrate their accomplishments with the company. Staying in a positive relationship with the employee is important for a variety of reasons, including assistance with business planning following the departure, gaining accurate exit interview intelligence, keeping the team motivated and positive and even keeping a good brand reputation in the market. But more than that, it signals to the rest of the team that you value them as individuals, not just as a valuable cog in a wheel. The process below needs to be handled as positively and professionally as possible. After all, you may want to hire the person again in the future or they may want to return so this will be a lot easier if their exit is managed smoothly.



2. Check your legal obligations

This seems a little cold, but really, you need to know where you stand. What are your company’s HR procedures for handling these situations? According to Workopolis, ‘…start thinking about whether that person can be trusted with continued access to potentially confidential information and equipment’. In some firms, there is a very set protocol to minimise security risks which sometimes includes cutting their security card in half and escorting the individual out of the office! But at most organisations, leavers are simply required to work out the notice period stipulated in their contract and to make sure there is a timely and complete hand-over of work. Check any agreements that the individual has signed, such as NDAs.  On the other hand, this resignation may be welcome and you’d rather the person didn’t serve their notice in the office. In these cases, according to HR expert Susan Heathfield, ‘Tell the employee that you will pay him or her for their time, but their services are no longer required.’



3. Check your succession plan

Hopefully you already have a succession plan in place for just this eventuality and everyone in the team has some knowledge of how to do the others’ jobs. Have you identified individuals internally that can potentially move into a role if a key employee leaves? If that isn’t the case, now is the time to make a rapid assessment.  If there isn’t a single individual to take up the slack, can the responsibilities be divided between several team members?  It could be a case they you simply need to go to market as soon as possible, and if the vacancy is senior, it’s likely you’ll need an executive search approach. Make a hiring plan.



4. Exit interview

It's absolutely vital that you find out why the person is leaving.  Was it to do with personalities? Management approach? Personal circumstances? Failure to uncover the root cause could mean you’ll be facing the same situation in three months’ time. It can also frame your search for a replacement or your decision regarding whether to fill the role internally. So, conduct an exit interview.  Be professional and treat this as an intelligence gathering exercise. Key pieces of information to gather include, according to Maren Hogan at Fast Company:

  • Why are you choosing to leave?

  • How could we have improved this situation before you decided to leave?

  • Did we provide you with the tools and training you needed to complete your job to the best of your abilities?

  • How would you describe the company culture in your department and company-wide?

  • If you were CEO, what three things would you change about the company?


However, while the above is key info, you should approach it in a slightly different way than simply asking these questions straight out and instead go for the soft-launch. As Rob Wormley at the WhenIWork blog writes:

‘Ask open-ended questions that let the employee get used to talking before you ask the tougher questions. Start with positive questions in order to set a positive tone for the interview… What has been your overall experience working here? Working with the team?’



5. The counteroffer dilemma


It really depends on the information you now have at hand as to whether you make a counteroffer. If the team member’s motivations were centred on remuneration, position and/or package, you may wish to consider making a counteroffer. However, our experience here is that the reasons for someone leaving are almost never simply about money and title. In which case giving them more money doesn’t address the underlying issues. In most cases, this is seen by the person leaving as too little too late. In all likelihood, it is better to say goodbye and address the issues raised internally. Counteroffers are tricky beasts and come with their own risks to team stability attached, especially if word gets out that someone in the team has used this method ‘to get more money’. As you are handling this professionally and staying in toucher with the leaver, you can always re-approach them further down the line.



6. Develop a clear action plan

Before you break the news to the team and wider business, make sure you have a clearly defined plan as to what is happening next. Who will be taking over what roles? You want to avoid a barrage of questions that you cannot answer, risking a chain reaction of departures.  The team will need reassurance and a clear direction, as well as positive motivation. 


7. Inform the team

News travels fast and you’ll want to be in control of that news. In most cases, it’s a good idea to work with the person leaving on the message you’ll give to the team. You’ll want to communicate positively and openly and also deliver your clear action plan. Likewise, be honest and open when communicating the departure to other stakeholders. Explain the circumstance in plain language and assure them that you are already working hard to find a suitable replacement and will ensure the transition will be as smooth as possible. 



8. Enlist the leaver in knowledge transfer

If the exit was unexpected and you don’t have a succession plan, you’ll need as much help from the person leaving as possible. As suggested by Heather Knight at HBR, this could include an extensive work-shadowing schedule so that those taking over his/her responsibilities can absorb what they need to. And under these circumstances, it’s best to acknowledge to the team the extra work they will face in the immediate future. But in any circumstances, there may be internalised knowledge that the employee has that isn’t recordable on an Excel sheet or in a Word document. For this you will need to negotiate continued communication with the person, so you can call on their knowledge or expertise either by email or phone as needed. This is even sometimes included in contractual clauses.



9. Celebrate the leaver

It’s a good idea to have at least a small party or leaving do for the person who’s going.
You can throw a proper party, but even cupcakes, coffees and a leaving card could be enough. The point is that it makes both the leaver, and the remaining employees feel valued and recognised. Conversely, just letting the person slip away and not acknowledging it sends a negative message to the team about how much the organisation cares.  Therefore, it’s best to take the time. After all, you may even wish to poach the leaver back again in a year! Always keep doors open and bridges intact.



10. Review

Now it’s time to take stock and review your situation:

  • Why did the person leave, and do you need to make internal changes?

  • Is the work covered or did you need to hire? How is that going?

  • Was the exit process handled well, will you need to make improvements?

  • Are the team all on-board with the action plan?

  • Have you covered all your legal obligations?



Remember, people in your firm will leave, no matter how good the work culture and environment are and how worthy the cause and vital the goals you’re all working towards. So getting this process nailed down is one of the most important aspects to running a business.