The Workplace

Your employee resigns unexpectedly. Here's what to do next.

by Craig Pirner, Managing Director, Talent Development

We tend to think that conversations about involuntary turnover are the tough ones. But it turns out that conversations about voluntary turnover—particularly, ones where a valued team member resigns unexpectedly—can be just as tough.

Ready to have a resignation recovery conversation? Download our list of questions to pick from

I vividly remember the first time one of my team members resigned. My mind started racing with questions: How are we going to get all of our work done now? What does this say about me as a manager? How could I not have seen this coming?

If you are a manager, chances are you have had at least one team member tell you that they plan to resign. When you hear the news, it's natural to feel emotional, and those emotions might provoke an unproductive reaction.

You might feel shocked by the news and disengage from the conversation, which may make you seem uncaring. You might feel hurt and lash out, which could damage the relationship. You might feel defensive and try to force the individual to stay, which only hardens their resolve to leave. Or you might leap into planning mode, working out all of the details of the departure, which skips the opportunity to learn valuable information.

While these are understandable responses to disappointing news, if you can master your initial emotional response (hint: start with a "five second space" in which you give yourself a beat to take a deep breath), you can facilitate a more productive conversation. In the best case scenario, you might create an opportunity to convince a valued employee to stay—but failing in that, you'll at least gain useful information about your employee's experiences and motivations that can make your team more effective in the future.

The 3 key steps to a 'resignation recovery' conversation

When someone says they are leaving, after you've calmed your initial emotional response, you might be tempted to focus on changing the team member's mind and/or attempt to offer solutions to issues that informed the resignation.

Even if your goal is to "save" an employee, we've found it's more effective to focus first on listening—not problem-solving. And when it's your turn to talk, there are three steps to take:

First, acknowledge their value—this will create a sense of rapport and help you move past any emotional reaction that you may have had to the unexpected news. Your statement may be strictly professional (highlighting how critical the team member is to the team's success) or more personal (noting that you can't imagine working without them). The key here is to be yourself. Being authentic will allow you to make a, or reinforce an existing, personal connection and open up the conversation.

Second, find out as much as you can about what they are doing next, what led to their decision, and if their departure is absolutely certain. Remember, the goal here is to learn, not to change their mind. Leading with curiosity will keep them open and honest about their decision.

Third, nudge—don't pushthem to share their true reasons for leaving. People may conceal their real reasons to avoid offending you, to shorten an awkward conversation, or to avoid burning bridges. While you should try to learn as much as you can, do so within reason. Respect their boundaries, and request permission before diving into a sensitive subject. (For instance, ask if it's OK to put them on the spot about the subject. This gives them the option to say "no," increasing their sense of safety and comfort).

Set the stage for a follow-up conversation

Before ending the conversation, recap what you've learned. Ask yourself: Do you have the sense that there are opportunities they're overlooking or that their frustrations could be solved? If so, ask for their permission to continue the conversation in a few days.

If you receive such permission, take that time to fully think through the issues you learned about in the initial conversation. You might hear about compensation, workload, the work environment, or career pathing. Try to truly address their concerns.

When you have the follow-up conversation, speak opening and respectfully about how you might address—or, in some cases, might not be able to address—their concerns. Make clear that the choice to stay or leave is ultimately the employee's.

You might win them back, both because of how you listened in the first conversation and responded in the second. But even if you don't, they'll leave remembering how you handled their resignation with candor and respect. An employee who leaves with those emotions is much more likely to say positive things in the community about your organization—and perhaps even to return again in the future.

Ready to have a resignation recovery conversation? Download this list of questions to pick from.

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