Turnover is just another fact of professional life. Even so, that doesn’t mean it isn’t frustrating, especially when it’s one of your top performers. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to handle that situation. So, here’s what to do when an employee quits your organisation.

While we generally think of the Great Resignation as a 2021 event, its effects are still felt today. Not long after Gallup’s damning Global Workplace Report, employees began quitting in waves. Four million Americans quit their jobs in April last year alone.

A lot of people have put up with sub-par work cultures for a very long time. But, with people more willing to quit than ever, employers are scrambling to find solutions.

If you’re reading this, we figure you’re pretty eager to keep your company’s staff turnover as low as possible. And, with the average case of attrition costing around £30k, it’s easy to see why. There are all sorts of reasons someone might decide to move on from your company, and try as you might, you’ll never keep everyone around.

According to Gallup, 52% of exiting employees believe their boss or company could have stopped them quitting. So, even if you can’t stop one case of turnover, you might be able to learn enough to prevent another. With that in mind, let’s look at what to do when an employee quits.

Don’t take it personally when someone quits

As a team leader, it can easily feel personal when one of your people bails. Especially in smaller companies or teams. And, to be fair, that’s because it probably is. Managers account for 70% of employee engagement variance. So, if you lose an employee, there’s a good chance it reflects on you as a boss.

But it’s important not to assume. There are all kinds of reasons someone might leave their role. They could have gotten a better offer elsewhere, or there might be a big change in their personal life. Even if they are quitting because of you, that doesn’t give you the right to be unprofessional. Getting offended about it won’t accomplish anything, except further alienating your now ex-employee.

It’s important to remember an employee’s life is much bigger than their work, and they have the right to prioritize their own wellbeing. Remind yourself that this change is what they need at this point in their life. What’s most important going forward is making the conversation productive.

Be inquisitive but supportive

If you hope to learn anything from cases of attrition, you need to understand their motivations. There’s a more formal process we’ll get to later. But, for now, we’re focusing on when they initially break the news.

Yes, it’s important to ask questions. But make sure it’s not an interrogation. Done right, even a casual conversation can give you a lot of insight. By all means, ask why they’ve decided to leave. But be aware, they might not be willing to open up about it on the spot.

As noted above, many ex-employees feel their manager could have changed their mind. If that’s going to happen, this conversation is your probable last chance. So, whatever you do, don’t be combative. You need to be humble and willing to take criticism onboard.

If they’re not interested in coming back, however, don’t drag it out. Digging your heels in won’t change anyone’s mind, and it’s much better to be supportive. If they have their next job lined up, congratulate them. If they’re making a big lifestyle change, show an interest. But, most importantly, don’t pry if they don’t want to talk about it.

Align expectations on how you’ll both proceed

In terms of what to do when an employee quits, the first thing is to touch base. Shared expectations are the key to a smooth employee exit. A 1:1 or a meeting with HR are both valid solutions. Good employee offboarding has a lot in common with good onboarding practice, just in reverse. It’s all about communication and support.

You’ll need to reaffirm their notice period, which should have been specified during the recruitment process. This is usually around two weeks, but your mileage may vary. With that in mind, you’ll need to get an idea of their outstanding workload.

Ideally, they’ll be able to tie up their loose ends before the end of their notice. But, if not, you’ll have to organize transferring the workload. For a big project hand-off, they might need to spend some time bringing colleagues up to speed.

Confirm that you’ll provide their reference. It may seem like a given, but it’s especially important if you want to run an exit interview, which we’ll be talking about next. Highlight some of their accomplishments that you’ll be sure to mention. This’ll put their mind at ease and make it easier to part on good terms.

Always run an exit interview

These interviews are “what to do when an employee quits” 101. For the uninitiated, exit interviews are pretty much the opposite of a job interview. You help the employee to break down why they’re quitting and the issues they encountered. This helps you understand why they were a poor fit, or how your organisation failed to support them.

If it’s your team member quitting, then as their line manager, it’s doubtful you’d run their exit interview. After all, it’d be so awkward if you were their problem this whole time. An impartial figure is much more likely to get honest responses. So, imagine you’re running the interview on behalf of another manager in your department.

Speaking of honest responses, remember our point about referencing?

Ideally, you’ve confirmed that you’ll give them a solid reference beforehand. This is because, if there’s ambiguity about it, they can be reluctant to speak negatively about the business.

Exit interview participants can speak more freely than current staff. That’s one of the main reasons to run them in the first place. So, if you’re holding their reference hostage (even unintentionally), you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

Bear in mind, these interviews shouldn’t be mandatory by any means. There’s nothing worse than an unwilling interview subject. Ask them if they’d be willing to take part (again, after sorting their reference!). Be sure to explain that their answers could improve working conditions for their old colleagues.

So, what should an exit interview look like?

As with all sentiment gathering approaches, avoid leading questions and other biases. Open-ended questions are ideal because they allow for detail. Some examples of exit interview questions might include:

  • In your own words, what has motivated you to leave your current role?
  • Is there anything we can do that might convince you to stay?
  • How do you feel about your manager?
  • Can you identify any blockers to productivity?
  • Did anything negatively affect your wellbeing while you worked for us?

But, don’t forget, these questions should be a way of generating further discussion. For example, if someone identifies productivity blockers or threats to wellbeing, you can chase that up with more focused questions. Pick their brain for possible solutions, anything that might be actionable insight.

Don’t burn bridges

Burning bridges with ex-staff is a good way to trash your rates of employee advocacy.

“But why do they matter when they’re not my employees anymore?” we hear you cry. Even an ex-staff member is still a potential advocate for (or detractor of) your brand. In the always-online era, you can’t afford to think of eNPS purely in terms of who’s on your current payroll.

These days, websites like LinkedIn and Glassdoor are the workplace equivalent of household names. On top of that, the Great Resignation has made your average employee that much more conscious of work culture.

With the labor shortage, reputation has never been more important. In other words, it’s never been a worse idea to alienate ex-staff. A reputation as a bad employer could see your talent pools dry up.

Even without Glassdoor and LinkedIn, there are plenty of outlets for disgruntled staff. We’ve all read articles where ex-employees criticize their old employer’s business practices. In one case, an ex-Facebook employee even went before congress to express concerns about their data handling practices.

Hopefully we’ve given you some idea of what to do when an employee quits. It’s never an easy thing to hear when a reliable team member decides to move on. You need to handle yourself professionally and do your due diligence. If you can manage that, even ex-employees can still be some of your biggest advocates.

That’s all we’ve got for you on this subject. But it’s far from our only guide to awkward conversations for managers. Case in point, here’s our guide to when an employee turns down a promotion!