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The ABCs of responding to the Great (or not so great) Resignation

Resignations recently hit an all-time high. You can't prevent every employee departure, but proactive leadership can retain more people and make for smoother offboarding.

6 min read


The ABCs of responding to the Great (or not so great) Resignation

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Texas A&M University professor Anthony Klotz inspired considerable consternation and conversation when he introduced us to the term “great resignation” to describe his belief that, “When there’s uncertainty, people tend to stay put, so there are pent-up resignations that didn’t happen over the past year.” 

Since then, countless studies, articles and workplace experts have weighed in on all sides of the brewing war for talent.

While some contend that the trend has been overblown and that the number of resignations will not be so great, it’s hard to refute the record 4 million workers who resigned in April. Or the reality facing the hospitality industry that finds itself woefully understaffed and offering significant signing bonuses for bartenders and baristas.

Whether the 2021 wave of resignations turns out to be great (or not so great,) the reality is that organizations have always faced unwanted turnover and will continue to. But it’s within an individual leader’s ability to at least stem attrition — and keep its negative effects to a minimum — if they practice these ABCs.

Assess your employees’ engagement level — frequently

Ongoing dialogue keeps the lines of communication open and offers an early warning system for leaders who are willing to take advantage of it. Checking in with people regularly strengthens relationships (and helps with retention since, as Marcus Buckingham writes, “People leave managers, not companies”).

But ongoing dialogue also offers insight into employee motivations and sentiments. Identifying unmet needs, wants, hopes and aspirations is the first step toward being able to consider the changes required to make a current role more attractive and encourage people to stay rather than leave.

Become as flexible as possible

No one needs to tell you that employees crave — maybe even demand — a level of flexibility and autonomy that far exceeds pre-pandemic expectations. And there’s no shortage of studies reporting on the benefits of flexibility in terms of happiness, retentions, performance, stress and more.

ATD recently published an insightful infographic highlighting data from MyWorkChoice and Workplace Intelligence. It states that 75% of hourly workers prioritize flexibility. The research also suggests that 90% of organizations are open to flexible programs for hourly workers. What about yours?

Increasingly, businesses are recognizing that flexibility isn’t a nice-to-have; it’s a need-to-have workplace quality. So, if you don’t know where your organization stands, ask. Identify where you can flex with your employees. Advocate for what your employees need. Find ways to offer even small accommodations that allow people to take greater control of their work.

And know that even if you aren’t able to arrange for the full level of flexibility employees want, your efforts send a strong message of support that won’t go unnoticed by those upon whose behalf you are advocating.

Control what you can, celebrate when you can’t

Let’s face it. You can’t control everything. Despite your best efforts at staying abreast of employee engagement, motivation and needs while remaining flexible, people are going to leave.

You may try to increase salaries but bump up against established range limits. You may be able to craft someone’s role to include more of what they want to do; and they still may leave for a more desirable title. Employees may require working conditions or locations that you can’t accommodate. Their interests may evolve in directions that are inconsistent with the organization’s core mission.

There are simply many factors that fall outside your sphere of influence. All you can do is control what you can, then offboard with grace.

When the inevitable is upon you, turn your attention to celebrating the employee and their next steps. It’s easy to feel disappointed, bitter and even jilted when someone makes the choice to leave you, even in a work setting. But managing those emotions and channeling them positively is, actually, good for business.

The conditions surrounding someone’s departure will color their feelings about the entire employment experience. And you want (even need) them to have a positive overall impression for several reasons.

  • How you handle those final weeks and days directly affects your reputation in the employment marketplace. The transparency of social platforms allows negative experiences to be shared and magnified, potentially discouraging future applicants.
  • The world is increasingly small. There’s a good chance that you and the employee will cross paths again. Good alumni relationships can facilitate future collaborations, referrals and other business positive outcomes. Leaving on a less-than-positive note may lead to uncomfortable interactions and unhealthy competition.
  • A friendly handshake keeps the door open (or at least ajar). Sometimes the grass turns out to be less green than employees imagined. And we frequently don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone. Giving people the opportunity to return if things don’t work out is not magnanimous — it’s smart.

So, rather than chastise, threaten or even freeze out departing employees, celebrate them. Draw attention to their contributions. Help them reflect upon what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown with you and the organization. Express appreciation and heartfelt good wishes for the future. (After all, a leader’s most profound sign of our success is the success of those around them.)

Attrition is a fact of organizational life. But you don’t need to sit by idly just waiting for it to happen. Take the initiative to assess employee engagement on a regular basis and respond with greater flexibility. And when someone decides to leave, treat them with grace, respect, appreciation and even friendship. The world is too small — and your reputation as a leader matters too much — to do anything else.


Employee engagement will be key in the months to come – to retain the employees you have and to build an employment brand that will attract top talent. And career development is a primary driver to make both happen. If you’re looking for actionable strategies for growing and retaining employees, download our latest complimentary e-guide, “Looking to Improve Engagement? Look No Further than Career Development.”

Julie Winkle Giulioni is a champion of growth and development in the workplace, helping leaders and organizations optimize the potential of their people. Named one of Inc. Magazine’s top 100 leadership speakers, she’s the co-author of the international bestseller, “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want,” and a forthcoming book that ATD Press will publish in spring 2021. Learn more about her work at

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