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Rethinking your response when an employee resigns

Attrition is a fact of organizational life. It’s not a matter of if but when it will happen. How will you respond?

5 min read


I quit


“I quit!”

These words strike fear in the hearts of managers everywhere. Resignations represent one of the most emotional, stressful and challenging situations leaders face. They undermine confidence in ourselves, our leadership and our organizations. They threaten the status quo. And they have the potential to compromise team dynamics and business results.

Continuum of responses

No wonder many managers demonstrate reflexive — and not always constructive — responses to these two emotionally charged words. In fact, leadership responses to resignations frequently fall toward one end of the following continuum or the other.

SmartBrief illustration

Many managers panic and immediately begin a scramble to turn back the clock, show exiting employees some love and throw goodies their way to induce them to stay. Others, perhaps as a result of organizational policy or personal offense, bring swift closure to the conversation and people’s employment by helping them pack up their belongings, turn in their keys and exit the building.

Depending upon the circumstances, either might be the appropriate response. But given today’s employment market, leaders can no longer afford to engage in these emotional reactions to a resignation. We must apply greater mindfulness to this most critical opportunity and challenge.

A more mindful response

Rather than gravitating toward either end of the continuum upon hearing of a resignation, leaders must pause and ask themselves a fundamental question: “Should I make an effort to prevent this employee from leaving the organization?”

There are many factors that feed into the answer to this seemingly simple question. But the most fundamental rests upon whether you possess the skills, experience and knowledge required to continue running the business without this individual. If not, then it becomes critical to invest the time required to understand what precipitated the resignation and what — if anything — can be done to change the employee’s mind.

But keep in mind the reality that for many people, once they’ve made up their minds to move in a particular direction, their hearts are committed and will eventually follow. (Remember that time you got back together with that boy- or girlfriend you’d broken up with? How long did it last? You likely had one foot out the door from the beginning of “chapter 2”)

So, it’s important to be mindful that you may be able to avert eminent disaster by isolating and responding to the employee’s needs and/or wants; but it may be just a short-term fix.

A friendlier handshake

Additionally, the projected worldwide talent shortages that will face many sectors and industries requires leaders to rethink how they navigate a resignation and the possible effects on the individual and the organization’s employment brand. Burning bridges is no longer an option. The pervasiveness of social media and sites like Glassdoor draw negative attention to leaders and/or organizations that treat exiting employees badly. But beyond reputation, old-school responses are still unnecessary and unproductive.

Take for instance the practice of ceasing employment immediately upon resignation. We’ve all seen it play out. HR or security escorts the soon-to-be former employee to his/her desk and scrutinizes what’s put in the box before the “perp walk” out the door.

Does anyone really believe that the employee hasn’t already taken home the materials and information that he/she wants? This approach to mitigating risk does little to protect the company; but it does have a chilling effect on the workforce as well as a bad (and lasting) impression with the former employee.

Additionally, given the investment made in employee development, many leaders are beginning to re-think how they help people exit. A warmer departure, friendlier handshake and positive post-exit contact builds a better employment brand. But it also leaves the door open for good talent to return. (And with millennials projected to have 20+ jobs over the course of their work lives, the ability to re-recruit alumni may become a powerful talent strategy and differentiator.)

Attrition is a fact of organizational life. It’s not a matter of if but when it will happen. And when it does, effective leaders are prepared to mindfully assess the situation and thoughtfully form a productive response. And, when it’s really time to say “goodbye,” they know how to do it with grace, dignity and an eye toward an abundant and opportunity-filled future.


Julie Winkle Giulioni is the author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” with Bev Kaye. Giulioni has spent the past 25 years improving performance through learning. She consults with organizations to develop and deploy innovative instructional designs and training worldwide. You can learn more about her consulting, speaking and blog

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