It’s an all too familiar story—an employee decides it’s time to take the next step in their career, somewhere else. This kicks off a clandestine operation to find a new job and an Oscar-worthy performance to make everyone think they’re just invested in the job as ever before. They feel icky and weird about taking interviews right under their manager’s nose, but no one in the company has been transparent about leaving before, and they’re not about to be the first.
When the offer letter finally lands in their inbox, the rush of excitement is dampened by dread. Will their manager be upset? What about her coworkers? Regardless, they know their last two weeks are about to be awkward and uncomfortable. Despite their time at the company being largely positive, their last day can’t come soon enough.
This scenario is the norm in a lot of organizations even though employee departures are far from uncommon. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that about three million people voluntarily leave a job every single month. So why is leaving a job so taboo?
I think a lot of people still believe that every new employee who walks through the door is going to stay for 10, 20, or 30 years. But the idea that if the organization takes care of its employees—offering plenty of paid vacation days, best-in-class benefits, and a mildly fulfilling work environment—they’ll return the favor by staying for the rest of their career is a myth. People simply don’t operate that way, at least not anymore.
Today’s workforce—of which millennials make up more than half—isn’t showing up just to pay the bills. They’re working toward bigger career goals, chasing new challenges, and hungry for opportunities. So it should come as no surprise that, eventually, their goals will lead them elsewhere.
Companies are not families, as much as we want them to feel that way. “Til death do us part” does not apply to the employer-employee relationship. Jobs are seasons, and seasons change. So when companies react negatively to an employee leaving—or worse, everyone takes it personally—it does a disservice to that person’s work and makes the end of a chapter feel like failure, rather than an exciting step forward.
But before we can celebrate employees leaving, we have to normalize it from the top down. And to normalize it, leaders and managers have to start talking about it. Here are three ways to change the narrative of an employee leaving from “treason” to “celebration.”
Talk about the future
As a manager, it’s easy to get stuck in the day-to-day blocking and tackling. When managers are operating in this mentality, conversations with employees usually end up being about the work that needs to happen that week. It takes some discipline to regularly zoom out and look at the big picture of what the business needs from the employee in comparison to where that employee wants to go in their career. It takes even more discipline to talk about it—there’s work to be done, after all.
But the first step in normalizing departures is establishing transparency around the employees’ career goals in relation to the goals of the organization. When you’re having honest conversations about the future regularly, you’ll know when the person’s career arc begins to diverge from the trajectory of the organization. And when that happens, you will likely both be aligned on what should happen next.
For instance, I once had an employee who was ready for a director-level position. She had over-performed and put herself in a position to earn a promotion, but the organization just didn’t have an opening for her to be promoted into. She was open and honest about what she wanted in her career, and I was open and honest about what the organization could offer her. So when she landed a director position at another company, it wasn’t a big surprise, and everyone at the company was genuinely excited for her new chapter.
Clarify expectations early and often
Sometimes it’s not misalignment of goals that cause departures, but a disconnect in expectations about the job itself. A lot of uncomfortable departures happen when expectations aren’t met. But expectation-setting is a two-way street.
Managers should clarify their expectations of the employee often, even when it comes to simple things like meeting deadlines, or response time to client communication. Similarly, employees should communicate their expectations of the job with their manager, whether that’s being able to end the workday without needing to check email after-hours, or getting things approved by the manager within a certain timeframe.
If either the employee or employer can’t meet a clearly communicated expectation, that employee’s time with the organization may come to a natural conclusion. For instance, if an employee keeps missing deadlines even after the manager covered the expectation, a conversation may need to be had about the employee moving on to a job that requires less time management. Or, if the job begins demanding that the employee answer email after-hours after she communicated the expectation of being able to “turn off” at night, a similar conversation may be required. It’s all about finding a mutual “fit” between the employee and the organization. If expectations can’t be met on either end, there’s probably a better fit out there for both.
Shift the paradigm of “success”
Another leader once told me something I’ll never forget: “I tell every direct report that works for me that one of my goals is to make them so successful that eventually I can’t afford to keep them because someone else will offer them a king’s ransom.”
The whole point of being a manager is to set your employees up for success. But somewhere along the line, “success” started to mean, “success at the organization.” Being an excellent manager means accepting that, at some point, your people will grow out of their current role, whether that’s through a promotion or taking a job elsewhere.
In order to make employee departures cause for celebration, we need to see employees as whole people on journeys of their own, not just employees within our organization. When employees decide to move on, you want them to have learned and grown so much that their time with the organization actually accelerated their career trajectory. At my company, part of our vision is for our alumni to say that their years with us were a formative step toward their next bold move.
Organizations are porous. People naturally flow in and out. But if people are leaving to pursue bigger, better things or to find a job that’s a better fit, that’s a good thing. We need to start treating it as such.