6 things to do when your key employee leaves

When your key employee tells you they are leaving for a better opportunity, it can be daunting and create a magnitude of knock on problems. You may feel disappointed or even betrayed, especially if your company is a small start-up or if it caught you by surprise.

Unexpected resignations bring significant challenges for leaders, especially those who are unaccustomed to dealing with them. Follow these 6 ways to handle departures effectively:

1. Firstly, try not to react personally to the situation

Don’t be offended or hurt when someone quits. Top performers don’t only work hard for your business; first and foremost they work hard to progress in their careers. If they have outgrown the role you have given them and you can’t help them achieve their own personal goals, they’ll look elsewhere.

2. Listen to them

Why are they moving on? Is there anything that can be done to keep them – are there interpersonal issues pushing them to leave, is it lack of career progression, or a money issue? If you think there is a chance to keep the person on board and you are able to address their concerns, try to fight for them. Unfortunately, once you have hit this point, the reality is that their decision has been made and your employee has mentally moved on. If that’s the case, express that you are sorry to lose them, wish them well and ensure the relationship remains professional whilst they are still employed by you. You never know when your paths will cross again and just because they are leaving your business does not mean they need to be treated like a pariah.

3. If you cannot convince them to stay, discuss their leaving plan and timescale.

It’s reasonable to ask your leaving teammate to assist their co-workers in taking over their job once they’ve left. Gather their expertise before they leave and make sure it’s passed on to other staff members. If they are leaving for a direct competitor, they may need to leave the business immediately so have established procedures in place. If there is a risk to your business from a competitive basis – eg have they signed non-disclosure/non-compete contracts at the start of their employment?

4. Take stock of their position within the company, do not react too quickly to fill the role.

You can turn this tricky situation into a positive. Plan who can take on their duties while you consider your options. Perhaps you don’t need to replace the person. Think of your existing employees and their capabilities, maybe your team members can come together and take on the tasks? If you are considering an internal employee to replace them, you will need to advertise the role across the business beforehand. If there is no one suited, you will need to hire externally. If they have technical skills that are hard to come by or difficult to source then what is the interim plan? Are those skills in the market?
Speak with a specialist technical recruiter about the reality of rehiring into this role. You could also consider outsourcing.

5. Be ahead of the gossip   

In my experience, I’ve seen that when someone senior leaves rumours spread like wildfire, so advise your colleagues before they start. Let those know who need to know about the departure and what the succession plan is.

Start with notifying the employee’s own department about the employee’s resignation. You can call a quick meeting and inform the other employees when the leaving employee’s last day is.

Tell your colleagues that you will appreciate their help to pick up any loose ends and inform them to whom the various responsibilities have been assigned. Be aware that the news could be unsettling for the team and be available to discuss this with your colleagues. On occasion, however, losing your star player can mean others get to shine when they may have been in the shadows before.

6. Ensure there is a formal exit interview and be open to necessary improvements

In today’s knowledge economy, skilled employees are the driving force of organisational success meaning you need to learn from them. Why they stay, why they leave, and how the company needs to change are crucial questions you need to ask. Listen to departing employee’s concerns. Issues he or she is expressing may be affecting other team members, too. Think if you can respond and change accordingly to ensure a better experience for the other employees.

When people change, the organisation must also change. Your role as a leader is to create an environment that embraces this change. Following the above steps can turn this challenge into an opportunity and help your company improve.