How to respond to someone quitting

On how to remain calm and professional when someone quits your team

Introduction

As a manager you will inevitably face a certain outcome: someone will suddenly quit your team, and you need to be prepared for that.

In this article I will not be looking at the reasons why someone might quit your team, but instead how you should respond to this unwelcome news. Your response to this, as a leader, is very important in terms of respecting the person who has quit, while also protecting the morale of the teammates left behind.

Do not overreact

"Remain calm and professional, and look at this as a learning opportunity. "

Firstly, and most importantly, do not overreact in an emotional way. It may be tempting to take it personally, and then become defensive by for example blaming the person quitting, but doing so will just make you look worse to the rest of the team, while confirming in the mind of the person quitting that they made the right decision.

Remain calm and professional, and look at this as a learning opportunity.

Do agree a handover plan

Secondly, you will need to agree a handover plan with the person quitting. In order for this to work effectively, you need to maintain a positive attitude with the person, and ask them for their help and cooperation during this process. After all, they have knowledge that they will take with them when they leave, so you need to ensure a knowledge transfer takes place before they leave for good.

Do communicate with the rest of the team

You cannot hide the news that someone has quit, as every company has a healthy rumour mill. Rather than letting the gossip control the message, get out ahead of that early-on and announce to the rest of the team that a valuable team member has quit, that we wish them well, and that you should spend some time with them in the coming weeks on any required knowledge transfer.

In addition, you may need to inform partners or clients that the team member has quit, again the messaging is important here: you will need to reassure them that a handover is taking place, and introduce them to the new team member that will be taking over that relationship from the person leaving.

"get ready for the awkward questions"

Finally, get ready for the awkward questions. Every time some has left one of my teams, I have always had people look to me suspiciously, like I done someone wrong to drive the person to quit. Be ready with those answers, because you will have to explain what happened.

Do an exit interview

If your company has a dedicated HR team, they will have this baked into their process. Regardless of that, do have an informal 1-to-1 with the person to gain insight into the reasons why they have quit. As a leader, this is one of the best opportunities you will have to get brutally honest feedback on your management style and shortcomings from a subordinate, as the person quitting no longer has anything to lose by being candid.

Value that feedback, listen intently, and do not argue their points (even if you may disagree).

Do take them to dinner

When someone leaves my teams, I always take them to dinner and drinks along with the rest of the team, ideally on their last day. Firstly, I want that person to leave my team with a positive memory of me and the company, to minimize the negative message about us that they might take to their next roles.

Secondly, I want to show the remaining team that all team members are valued, even those that have decided to quit.

Dinner is a simple act, but it is universally valued that to “break bread” with people is accepted as a sign of empathy and solidity.

Always pick up the bill!

Never take them back

Sometimes, very rarely but I have seen it happen, a person will quit a company only to realize they have made a mistake, and ask to be taken back. As tempting as this might be for you to have that valuable person slot back into their old role in your team, you should never do this.

The reason is simple: the frustrations that motivated the person to quit will still remain in your organization when the person comes back for the second time, so those doubts will remain. They may come back for a short period of time, but chances are they will soon leave again and you will have to relive the same disruptive handover process once more.

Conclusion

It is often said that “people leave their managers, not their companies”, and I think that is certainly true in many instances. As a manager, we cannot afford the freedom to take that personally, and overreact in a childish way. You may feel insulted, but that is your issue and should not be allowed to impact on others in your team, or the person quitting.

It is also often said that “hiring is the most difficult thing a manager does”, which is also quite true (certainly it is the most important thing). However, dealing with the fallout of team member quitting, especially a critical one, is a lot more difficult. Worse still is having to ask someone to leave, I would not wish that on anyone.

Hiring good people is a good way to mitigate quitting frequency later on, keeping them engaged on interesting and varied projects is another, but ultimately despite your best efforts people will eventually quit on you.

Accept that outcome, and be ready.

John Collins

I have been writing about web technology and software development since 2001. I am the developer of the Alpha Framework for PHP, and the Five.Today personal productivity app. I love open source, technology, and economics. You can follow updates from this blog on Twitter.

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