Helping People Quit

The biggest time-suck for my clients in the past few years certainly has to be hiring. It seems like every single company nowadays has dozens of open positions. That reality coupled with what is currently called “the great resignation” might make the concept of helping people quit crazy. However, I’ve seen companies spiral downwards when leadership didn’t know how to come to terms with people leaving. Doing so properly is actually incredibly helpful in retaining other people.

What Happens All-Too-Often

Someone on your team grabs you between meetings and asks to talk for a few minutes. They’re giving you their notice. In some cases, you could see it coming. Others might feel like you’ve been blindsided. I’ve seen managers handle two different parts of these scenarios poorly. One part is about the quitting employee, and the other is about the rest of your team.

Regarding the employee that’s quitting, some leaders go into denial. They try to push back on the notice itself, asking to talk some more later, treating things as if they are not final, etc. It might feel like you’re buying time, but you’re actually just irritating the other person—who is probably feeling very nervous about this conversation.

Other managers might start piling on the guilt. I understand that you might feel betrayed, but listing all the times you’ve helped them, every single opportunity you provided, the fact that you paid for an online course, and whatever, is probably not going to help either. It is fine to say that you’re not at all happy and would love to keep them or fight for them (if you would). But dismissing their well-thought decisions or trying to guilt them into changing their decisions is not how leaders (or adults) should act.

The other side here is how the departure is communicated and treated. Sometimes managers belittle the role or decisions of those who left. If you start trashing someone after they are gone, everyone else in your team will expect the same to happen should they ever leave.

These reactions just make things worse. They might make the notice period unproductive as a start. Worse, they might teach others in your company that you’re a sore loser of talent. Therefore, they might conclude that they’re better off not even mentioning it if they’re unhappy or considering options, making it even more likely that they’ll leave. You can and should do things better.

People Leave. That’s Good

We should start with the basic understanding that people will leave. You shouldn’t aim to have a team where no one leaves, ever. If you succeed, that likely means that you are amassing organization debt to keep people longer than is good for them. If you fail, you’ll take every single resignation as a personal failure. As long as departures are aligned with “normal” churn, you shouldn’t be going into panic mode.

There are positives to people leaving and accepting that reality. First, it prevents ossification in your organization, as things regularly change. It makes space for others to be promoted or take on bigger and newer responsibilities. You get fresh eyes in different positions. It builds your organizational resilience.

I always think back to the fact that in Unit 8200 (Israel’s NSA equivalent, where I served), most people served for 3-4 years total and then completed their service and moved on to become citizens. An organization that is used to everyone leaving within a few years has to get good at accepting changes, conserving knowledge, and so on. If we could do it as 18-21-year-olds, surely your company can pull it off as well.

Not Taking People For Granted

One of my clients once said, “I don’t blame people for quitting. It’s our job to ensure that they’re growing and happy.” We need more leaders with this sort of wholesome approach. Always keep in mind that there’s a massive gap between executives and senior leaders and other employees, not to mention the gap between employees and founders.

Instead of getting angry, create a culture among your managers that takes the initiative. Talk to your people about their growth and challenges. Set up goals and help them track them. Provide them with coaching and support systems to help them grow. People who remain even when they’re no longer happy or growing aren’t really the kind of people you want, right? No one set out to lead an average team—don’t make yours one.