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When a star performer hands in their notice, here's how to create a smooth transition for your report, your team, and your organization.

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When an employee notifies you that they’re quitting, you might feel a range of emotions. Maybe you’re surprised and sad. Maybe you’re unsurprised and glad. Maybe you’re all four at once. Maybe you’re dreading what comes next: telling the team, finding their replacement, navigating headcount budgets.

When you find yourself in this moment – no matter how you feel – it will benefit you in the end to take a step back and consider how you want to navigate this change. Even if your gut response is to try to negotiate with your employee to get them to stay, or to immediately cut off their access – resist this urge, pause, and think.

What do you want to optimize for as your employee leaves?

Ask yourself: what do you want to optimize for? Consider team dynamics, the projects on this person’s plate, and what you want the future to look like. Here are some examples of what your answer to this question might be:

  • This employee is highly respected at your company, so you want to optimize for supporting their teammates and helping them feel secure after your employee leaves.
  • This person has been disruptive to team culture, so you want to optimize for a smooth and speedy departure with minimal conflict.
  • This person has a lot of connections to folks you may want to hire for future roles, so you want to ensure they have a really positive experience in their last few weeks at this organization.
  • This person is someone that you will be eager to work with again in the future – and you really don’t want them to quit today. So, you’ll want to hold on to the trust you’ve established and continue to strengthen your relationship with them.

What you want to optimize for will impact your decisions about messaging, timelines, celebrations, and so much more. If you decide you want to optimize for ensuring your direct report feels supported in their path forward, here are the next steps you can take right now to achieve this goal.

How to respond when an employee quits

First, tell your direct report that you’re in their corner and that you’ll help them with this transition. One of the most supportive things a former manager said to me when I was leaving was, ‘That sounds like a huge opportunity, and exactly what you should be doing next. Congrats. I’m not going to try to convince you to stay, as much as I want to. I hope you know I will hire you again in a heartbeat.’

Let your employee know what the next steps are. You’ll likely need to notify your HR team, who will probably kick off a series of checklists on their end, and the IT team so they can make a plan for wrapping up access to systems, software, and hardware. Sometimes there are forms to fill out in the company’s HR system to ensure the rest of the steps happen smoothly.

In addition to HR, it might be smart to notify other individuals ahead of any team-wide or organization-wide messaging. This could include teammates that partner closely with this employee, folks you trust who can help you with communicating the news, or key stakeholders.

If it’s possible – and if this aligns with what you’re optimizing for – partner with your departing employee to figure out who else should know first, and the best way to tell each of those folks. Consider different mediums: a short-notice video call, a Slack message, or a walk outside if you work in the same building. Sometimes the person leaving will want to share the news with someone directly, other times it’ll be better for you to do the communicating, and occasionally you might want to meet with them together to answer their questions and figure out next steps.

How to announce somebody is leaving to the broader team and organization

It’s important to avoid colleagues finding out through surprising ways, like receiving a bounced email notification from the departing employee. Leverage the communication mediums that are commonly used at your organization for departure announcements. And if there’s not an established norm for this kind of message, it’s time to come up with a template for you and other managers to use going forward.

If you’re building this process from scratch, here’s a how-to for writing a communications plan. Your ‘optimizing for’ statement will inform all of the messaging, mediums, and who delivers them.

Make a synchronous announcement to the rest of the team once those immediate conversations have happened. It tends to be a good idea to partner with your direct report on the plan for this meeting – but again, run this option through your personal ‘optimizing for’ statement just to make sure.

Before the meeting, prep answers to these frequently asked questions:

  • Where is the direct report going?
  • Will we hire a backfill?
  • Who will pick up their remaining work?
  • What does this mean for the future of the team?

It bears repeating: your ‘optimizing for’ statement will be handy as you think through the answers to these questions, and who should answer them (you, or the departing direct report).

After the synchronous meeting, ensure an asynchronous message is sent to all the other employees who will want to know your direct report is leaving. This way, those who weren’t at the meeting will still get a proactive heads up, and those who were there have the information and plan in written form. 

Your employee might prefer to write their own goodbye emails to the team, and then you can reply-all to the email to acknowledge the departure and thank them for their time at the company.

Depending on what you’re optimizing for, you may want to express gratitude and appreciation for your direct report and their work in all of these messages. This is an easy thing to forget to do amidst all of the logistics of their departure! But doing so can have a positive lasting impact, both for your departing employee, and for the folks who remain on the team.

What to do in the final days before an employee leaves

Unless you’ve immediately cut off their access, you can work with your direct report in their remaining time at the organization to help them have a smooth departure. Be aware of the long-lasting impact of your decisions and behavior during this time, and the stories that your report will share about your management and their exit.

Of course, there might still be hiccups in the departure logistics! You have the ability to reduce some of this stress by proactively partnering with your HR and IT teams to understand what’s required for:

  • Equipment returns (these processes may have changed a lot since the start of the pandemic)
  • How the last paycheck works (when is it deposited or sent?)
  • How long employment benefits last (and if you’re in the US, how COBRA works)
  • Filing final expense reports

When I’m helping a team member take extended time off, I use a template to help plan work handoffs. Unless you’re optimizing for ushering your direct report out the door quickly, or reducing the influence this person might have on future decisions, you can repurpose this template to create a handoff plan for your direct report’s work and responsibilities. It covers the following important questions:

  • What decisions or project work need to be communicated or documented, and who are the audiences for those messages?
  • What important documents does this person control access to, and who else should receive edit or view access?
  • What information is documented in calendar events they own? (Launch dates, agendas, linked project documents, etc.)
  • Who should be the new driver of the work this person has been responsible for?
  • Who should people contact when they have questions that this person would normally answer?

Last but certainly not least, consider whether or not a team celebration or goodbye event would support what you’re optimizing for. You can hold a virtual event to give folks the space and time to say goodbye, or you can encourage folks to write messages that you can share in a card or gift on their last day. 

Reflections

During each step of this process, recognize that you’ll be creating a norm or expectation around what the team does when someone departs. For example, it’ll be noticeable if you hold a goodbye event for some departures, but not others. Keep this in mind for each decision you make, and jot down a few notes so you can be consistent with other departures going forward.

The experience that your employee has after they tell you they’re quitting will greatly impact how they view your organization. You have the ability to shape this last page in their adventure by bringing intention to each choice you make and every message you send.