Employee Relations

What to do when a key employee quits

People having a meeting

An employee hands you their notice suddenly. They are a key employee, and you rely on them quite heavily. Do you know what to do next?

Now, I could make this entire article about succession planning. After all, prevention is better than cure. But while hindsight is a beautiful thing, it doesn’t really help you right now, does it? And that’s because you want to know what to do when a key employee quits. Not what to do before they quit.

So I’ve spoken to some experts and gathered five important pieces of advice that will help make this a little easier for you.

1. Find out what went wrong (and think about fixing it)

It isn’t always your fault, and it isn’t always something you can fix. But if you don’t ask, then you may never know. So the first thing to do when a key employee quit is to find out why.

If it’s for a practical reason such as moving, there’s not much you can do,” says Nate Masterson, HR Manager of Maple Holistics. “But in some cases, for example, if the employee feels underappreciated, you can try to rectify the situation so that the employee wants to stay. After all, you want to have a reputation of being a company that treats its employees well.

Even if you can’t fix the problem for the employee who wants to quit, their feedback can still be invaluable. After all, you may be able to put measures in place which prevent this issue from becoming a problem with future hires.

You may already have an “exit interview” as part of your leaver process. But by having this conversation the moment an employee indicates their intentions to leave, you can not only improve your workplace, but you may potentially retain the leaver.

2. Don’t make a knee-jerk counter-offer

While Masterson is right in saying that you should first attempt to find out what went wrong and then fix it, the lengths to which you go should be reasonable. And one area where you need to be super careful is when the employee’s reason for leaving concerns money.

Mikaila Turman, VP of people at GoodHire, says: “A counteroffer with increased compensation may entice the employee to stay. However, it doesn’t necessarily change the person’s attitude toward wanting to be there.

Mikaila says that you should ask yourself if you really want someone staying in a key position for more money.

In the long run,” says Turman, “it’s better to cut your losses and hire someone who’s excited to be there, believes in your company’s values, and wants to work towards improving the business within their role.

Of course, you might also want to check that you are paying a fair rate for the work your employee is doing. After all, if they are being paid significantly less than people in similar positions to them, then there is no wonder they have become disgruntled.

If the issue of pay is where you feel stuck right now, then you might also want to read the following articles:

 * Three reasons NOT to make a counteroffer

 * Should you threaten to quit to get a raise?

 * Equity Theory: Helping your employees feel more fairly paid

But of course, you can’t always fix the problem. Sometimes, the employee is going to leave.

3. Find out what they actually do

This might sound like I’m suggesting that you don’t know what your employees actually do. But even if that’s true, it’s not exactly what I mean.

You want to be sure that what you have on paper is actually what the job entails” explains Robin Schwartz, HR Director at Career Igniter. “Let the employee guide you on what he or she is responsible for that might not have been listed in the original job posting.

You see, if your leaver has been in their role for a long time, then what they do may well have changed over the years. So before you blindly go and hire somebody for a job that was only relevant five years ago, sit down with your leaver, and ask them to help you go through the new job description.

4. Make the most of the employee’s notice period

As well as getting their help writing your new job description, Schwartz advises other ways of making the most of the time you have with your leaver.

It may only be a few weeks,” Schwartz tells me, “but take advantage of every second before your key employee leaves the company. Have them provide a list of upcoming deadlines, important contacts, and even a general tutorial on where necessary files or records are stored.

I discussed a similar point with Jessica Fink, Professor of Law at California Western School of Law. She tells me that you can even go beyond their notice period, as long as you have a good working relationship.

In some circumstances,” says Fink “if there is a ‘friendly’ departure, you may be able to persuade the departing employee to train his or her replacement.

Fink says that employers often try to incorporate this sort of transitional training arrangement into their employment contracts, especially for key roles. However, she adds that an alternative to this is to offer to pay the leaver as a contract worker, until such time as their replacement is fully trained.

5. No matter what the outcome, make sure you part on good terms

Alicia Shankland is an HR executive with more than 20 years of experience. She says that while it is often alarming when a key employee resigns, the most important thing to do is make sure they exit on good terms. This is because the relationship can continue long after they leave.

So don’t give in to an emotional negative reaction. No matter how tempting it might be.

Alumni can be excellent sources for re-hire or candidate referrals” Shankland explains. “In a past organisation, we had a high rate of boomerangs – employees who return at a later date. At the peak, we filled 25% of open roles with alumni. That is great for morale. It sends a clear motivational signal to other employees that their work is exceptional.

Shankland says that the best recruiting teams will often use ex-employees as a frequent resource, for obtaining introductions to passive candidates who may have the exact skillset and cultural fit.

Move past the short-term loss quickly,” says Shankland “and focus on potential gains.

This all becomes easier if you train a more versatile workforce

I know that I said I wasn’t going to talk about succession planning. But I feel like this little point deserves a mention, and it’s something that cropped up during my conversation with Professor Fink.

Fink says: “One practical suggestion for many employers who want to pre-empt the disruption when a star employee leaves, is to make sure that other employees are capable of doing some, or all, of the important job duties of other key employees. This can involve cross-training your workers so that you aren’t losing essentially the ‘only’ person who is able to do a particular job.

And if you are currently preparing to hire a new employee for a key role, then you might want to review these eight essential steps in the recruitment process.