What to do when your best employee quits

You rely on them more than you’d like to admit—and now they’re leaving. Here’s what to do next.

What to do when your best employee quits
[Source image: Fugacar/iStock]

Now that we’re roughly a year and a half into the pandemic, workers seem to be in search of something new. And that “something new” is often a new job. A February 2021 report by Achievers Workforce Institute found that more than half (52%) of employees in the U.S. and Canada plan to look for a new job in 2021. That’s 35% higher than in 2020 (although, at that time, many people were just worried about keeping their jobs in the early months of COVID-19). The bump in job-changers has been dubbed the “Great Resignation” by some. But what do you do when one of those job-changers is a highly valued employee of your own?


When your right-hand person or a rising rock star in your business tells you they’re about to leave, it can be an emotional experience, says Rich Reinecke, co-managing partner of business consulting firm Fahrenheit Advisors. “It can be very emotional, initially. Sometimes you’re angry. Sometimes you’re scared,” he says. But what you do next can have serious repercussions for your business. Here’s a seven-step plan.

Take a breath

When Larissa Salvador, owner of Salvador Law, PA, an immigration law firm, found out her trusted paralegal was leaving to work at a domestic violence shelter, she was heartbroken. “I fully relied on her. … We made a lot of decisions together, about even the way that I run my firm,” Salvador says. But she quickly realized that her employee was moving on to an opportunity that would be more fulfilling, so she was able to put the move in perspective, she says.

It’s usually not a good idea to react at the moment, Reinecke says. Instead, set a time later to discuss the decision. The first thing you should do after you get the news is to digest it and reflect on it, he says. “Don’t try and conquer everything after that initial discussion. Set up a follow-up because it gives you some time because you just got rocked on your heels, possibly,” he says. The more you rely on the person, the more upset and worried you may be. You need some time to clear your head, he says.


Think about triage

As you consider the next steps, think about the most immediate needs created by the departure. Start creating a list of the questions you’ll need to be answered and the critical tasks that will need to be assigned. “‘What are the things you’re working on? What are the critical things that we need to be prepared to pick up? And who are the critical players you’re engaged with? What clients are you touching? And how do we put a plan together to capture all of this in a very short period of time?'” Reinecke says.

Ask why

When you meet with your employee, whether it’s to discuss the decision or for an exit interview, ask for honest feedback about why they’re leaving, says Paul French, managing director of executive search firm Intrinsic Search. Use the opportunity to find out if there are things you can improve about your company culture or if you can fix the reasons the individual decided to leave.

Most of all, don’t take it personally, French says. “Keep in mind that they are not obligated to tell you why they are leaving and where they are going. Avoid pressing them for answers or guilt-tripping them, as this will unnecessarily sour your relationship and leave no space for reconciliation,” he says.


Consider a counteroffer

Counteroffers may be tempting, but they’re not always a good idea, says Brenda Neckvatal, known as “the HR Lady,” and host of the podcast Best Practices in Human Resources. It’s easy to overestimate how much you need the individual and want to start bargaining for them to stay. Before you do, try to understand why they’re leaving, she says. “What is it about it the situation, it could be something that’s in their control, could be something that’s out of their control,” she says.

Your employee may be leaving for personal reasons, like a spouse getting another job in a different state, or because of an issue you can fix. If it’s the latter, try to discuss what can be done. But, often, Neckvatal says, by the time the person has come to you to give notice, their mind is made up. It may be hard to convince them to stay.

Tell your team

“If you don’t come to an agreement, take the next step and inform your team immediately—don’t wait for word to spread via the grapevine,” French says. Getting the word out yourself allows you to reassure team members. Invite them to apply for the vacancy or recommend others to do so.


Look for the opportunity

As you think about replacing the individual, think about what your company truly needs next. Perhaps there is now an opportunity to hire someone who has the skills necessary to help you grow your company, Reinecke says. Salvador is a good example: She is still working on replacing her “right-hand,” but has reassigned tasks to other team members and is taking her time to look for the best replacement.

Stay in touch

With a few exceptions, Reinecke says it’s a good idea to part on good terms and leave the door open for the future. “You should always be continuing the conversation with people. You create this alumni network,” he says. “Continue the discussion with folks who have been on your team, and maybe they come back because their careers change, their aspirations have changed, and now you’re the right fit again,” he says.

French takes things one step further: Show the team that the person is still valuable and you are committed to treating them humanely. “Consider throwing a happy hour, potluck dinner, or party for the leaving employee—celebrate their contributions and their future journey,” he says. This way, you’ve left the door open for them to return—with new skills and more experience.


About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites


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