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Quitting is contagious. That’s a reality some company leaders have learned the hard way during this time of historic employee turnover.
When an employee — and particularly a top employee — gives notice, a ripple effect can happen. Remaining team members may be left feeling destabilized, annoyed at the additional work they’re expected to absorb, and envious of their departed colleague for finding greener pastures elsewhere. And if a second employee, shortly on the heels of the first, quits, you can pretty safely expect a domino effect of resignations to be set in motion.
Even workers who’ve been perfectly happy with their jobs may be susceptible to starting a reactive job search, fearing that they’ve missed the memo. Clearly, others have seen a reason to jump ship, and no one wants to be the party left behind. Referring to November 2021’s record-high number of voluntary resignations, The New York Times reported:
“When workers weigh whether to jump jobs, they don’t just assess their own pay, benefits and career development. They look around and take note of how friends feel about the team culture. When one employee leaves, the departure signals to others that it might be time to take stock of their options, what researchers call ‘turnover contagion.’”
To prevent one resignation from ballooning into several, it’s essential that business leaders do a few things immediately on the heels of a top employee quitting.
1. Share news of the departure company-wide as soon as possible.
Moments like this call for action that’s as swift as it is thought through, according to Teo Vanyo, CEO of Stealth Agents.
“Don’t let rumors get out of hand. It’s critical that the individual who’s departing can make the announcement, and it’s also critical to be open and honest with your staff,” Vanyo said. “Make it plain that the leaving is unwelcome, that change is inescapable, but that we have a plan to get through the storm.”
Stakeholders need to be looped in, too, and it’s a good idea to do this directly before speaking with your staff at large, Jay Soni, Marketing Director of Yorkshire Fabric Shop, said.
“The first thing I did was call key stakeholders and inform them of the situation,” he said. “The importance of order cannot be overstated. The discussions were candid and lasted no more than 15 minutes.”
2. Be mindful of your tone.
You’re not excited to lose a top employee. But in all of your communications, both to the departing employee and with the company at large, a careful tone balance must be struck. First things first: keep it professional, Ivan Brozincevic, who leads HR efforts at his company, said.
“It’s easy to get emotional once the news breaks out… however, this is a time to keep your composure and resort to company protocols,” he said. “One of the most critical aspects of this process is preserving the relationship with the employee in question. It’s not uncommon for employees to return to the companies they departed from, and you might want to try to rehire them in the future.”
And, while you certainly want to thank this employee for their invaluable contributions, be sure you’re not leaving the rest of the team feeling overshadowed.
“When leaders hold onto the idea that the person leaving was a top employee, it’s going to leak out in their communications and actions,” Mike Edwards, an executive coach, said. “People will start to feel an inequity or lack of respect. The unintended message is you don’t think the remaining people are good enough to continue succeeding.”
3. Meet with the impacted team as a group or, even better, with team members individually.
After sharing the news en masse and with stakeholders, it’s time to focus on the team members most impacted by this departure.
“Rally the troops in both a group and 1:1 setting,” executive coach Kate Walker said. “If you haven’t already, remind them that you value their contributions to the team and envision a bright future ahead for each of them.”
This is a great time, she added, to ensure that professional development goals and plans are in place for these team members.
“If a development plan isn’t in place, begin those dialogues immediately,” she said, “and be sure to share the team, department and company vision. With so many people resigning, team members may question, ‘Why am I here and why should I stay?’ Help them align to and be excited about the north star.”
4. Start the knowledge transfer process ASAP.
To ensure things are left feeling as smooth as possible for remaining team members, a comprehensive knowledge transfer is essential, Mark Liu, CEO of iMarku, said.
“Work with the exiting employee in transferring their knowledge to those who will take on their tasks so that the workflow won’t be disrupted,” he said. “Have this underway within the week that they sent in their notice to give the team time to transition. If possible, ask your top employee if they can still be contacted in case their sticky knowledge is needed for any issues that may arise during the transition period.”
5. As much as possible, avoid dumping extra work on your remaining staff.
To avoid a quitting cascade from starting, do everything you can to protect remaining team members from feeling “overloaded with too much work to do,” Edwards said.
“Too often when people leave, the remaining people are left to pick up the slack, despite there often not being any slack,” he said. “Re-examine priorities to look for what work could slow down or stop until you have a new person up to speed. In doing this, leaders will send the message that they value their people maintaining a healthy work-life balance.”
6. Evaluate how, exactly, this employee will be replaced.
Your replacement plan requires strategic thinking, and thus, it makes sense it wouldn’t be spoken to when announcing your employee’s departure. Once you’ve collected the information needed to form this plan, though, be prepared to address it sooner versus later.
“After you’ve developed a transition plan and carried out knowledge transfer, you’ll have a solid picture of what your employee accomplished and how much work will remain after she leaves,” Tiffany Payne, Head of Marketing at Replace Your Docs, said. “Then, you’ll want to compare this data to your team’s existing goals, responsibilities and workload to determine whether and when to employ a replacement.”
You may determine the departing employee’s tasks are so immediate and significant that help from a temp is required, or the workload may be light enough to delegate it to other team members without overburdening them. Alternatively, you may decide “that now is an appropriate time to restructure the role and its relationship with the rest of your team,” Payned added.
If you decide you will be hiring for the same role in its current form, before looking elsewhere, be sure to identify possible promotion opportunities for your remaining team.
“Look at the talent that you have to find the people with the most potential to step up, and don’t waste any time,” Daniel Javor, CEO of Step By Step Business, said. “The whole team needs to see a positive result from this change in the team as soon as possible.”
Read more: The 9 Real Reasons Star Employees Quit
7. Be strategic with your exit interview.
Exit interviews are a valuable pulse-check opportunity that can help you ward off other resignations — particularly if you’re willing to take a long, honest look at yourself as a leader.
“One of the first things to do when a top employee quits is to understand the why,” Jessica Kats, an e-commerce expert at Soxy, said. “Conduct a thorough exit interview and understand what about their role, the company or the work environment forced them to make this decision.”
You should also know, however, that understanding the reason “isn’t enough,” Kats added.
“As a leader, it is your responsibility to improve the working conditions of your employees in order to retain them,” she said. “The insights you gained from the exit interview will help guide your next steps. If they were overworked, evaluate the workload of all your employees to assess if other employees face the same issue. Then, take actionable steps to resolve the problem.”
You can also ask existing team members directly whether there’s anything about their work day they’d like to see change.
“Companies with low quit rates enable open communication between employers and employees,” Anjela Mangrum, a career coach, said. “Consider having one-on-one meetings with team members and ask them for input about your managerial style or any improvements you could make to facilitate their day-to-day.”
8. Celebrate the departing party.
For everyone involved, it’s best to leave things on as positive and affirming a note as possible. While taking care to avoid forced, top-down sentimentality — which is rarely a good look — let other team members have the floor to celebrate their departing colleague.
“End things on a positive note,” Mangrum said. “Take this chance to make a memorable last impression, so they might even return to work for you later on. Whether your budget allows for a snacks and games session in the breakroom or a fancy team lunch, it will let them know you appreciate their hard work.”
Find other leadership advice on the blog.