How to Keep Your Bearings When a Valued Employee Suddenly Quits

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How to Keep Your Bearings When a Valued Employee Suddenly Quits
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How to Keep Your Bearings When a Valued Employee Suddenly Quits

Do you know what happens when a homeowner removes a load bearing wall? The impact isn’t pretty. Walls crack, floors sag, doors won’t close, and in some cases the entire house buckles and falls to the ground.

It’s the very same thing when a key employee suddenly resigns. Maybe it’s a virtual assistant who knew all the ins and outs of your schedule, and worked tirelessly to keep your week on track. Or someone with that special combination of charisma and drive who you knew would someday be a star in upper-management.

In the aftermath of the departure, the framework of the organization sags a little. The work they once completed with so much panache is left undone.

It’s bewildering to have this support knocked out from under you. So many questions need to be answered: How to break the news to the boss and the team? Who will pick up the slack? When can someone be hired? And of course, how does this make you look as a manager?

And on top of it all, a part of you takes the resignation very personally. Even though it’s silly and unprofessional, you feel affronted. It must mean they didn’t like you.

Fortunately, there is a way to deal with a resigning employee that keeps the organization grounded and everything in-tact. In this post we’ll look at what to do when a key employee quits, plus a few ways to mitigate the impact when it happens again in the future.

Stem the Shock

Stem the Shock

Having an employee quit can leave you blindsided. They may have seemed so dedicated to the mission of the company that the resignation comes out of nowhere.

At the same time, every manager knows that even when someone loves their current job, moving on sometimes makes the most sense.

Getting to know employees both professionally and personally makes it easier to understand where they’re heading in their lives, and to sense if a big move looms over the horizon.

Here are two ways to identify with your employees and gauge where they stand in their current position.

Have Substantive One-on-Ones

Take the time to meet with your direct reports over lunch or coffee, just to talk and get to know them. Listen to their story to gain a picture of what the position means to them. Ask the bigger questions around what motivates them and where their passions lie.

Understanding employees on a personal level provides a barometer for where they are heading in life, and it’s easier to judge whether their current position will take them there.

Read People

Sometimes you feel the fatigue or boredom on a person. Just listening to the tone in their voice when they agree to work overtime indicates if they’re happy with the job or if they’ve had it.

This listening provides opportunities to have conversations at critical moments. When an employee’s frustration seems unsolvable, it doesn’t take a soothsayer to see that a resignation may well be in store.

Unfortunately, remote work environments challenge this ability to read people. Managing a remote team requires taking extra steps to engage in video calls and on conference platforms, in order to understand where people are, emotionally.

Thread the Needle

Thread the Needle

It’s stressful to receive an email from a direct report with the title “Got a sec”? Particularly with an employee you’ve worked hard to support, train and develop, it feels like a gut punch to have her say she’s moving on.

Although you may completely understand the motivations and even support the decision, it’s hard as a manager not to take a resignation personally.

A measured response that dances between personal and professional helps to ease the pain of the departure.

Be Human

When an employee up and quits out of nowhere, all sorts of questions arise. You’re probably wondering at what point he decided to make the move, and why? And why didn’t he ever reach out and talk to you about things?

In order to connect on a human level, it’s ok and even healthy to ask some of these questions outright. The answers may reveal stuffed feelings and buried issues, knowledge which can help you improve the work environment.

Be Professional

At the same time, it’s necessary to maintain a professional demeanor in the exchange. Although it might be tempting to start gushing out a response immediately, take in everything they tell you. Look to understand what motivated the resignation, then choose a response with care.

As their manager, be supportive of the decision, and communicate your appreciation for the time they’ve spent working for you.

Find a Place to Gush

You may feel gutted by the departure, but having a strong emotional reaction in the moment doesn’t help anybody. At the same time, allowing questions to fester and compound in your head isn’t healthy either.

Finding a colleague to share your surprises, anxieties, and disappointments allows you to channel your emotions constructively, and react with healthy objectivity.

Salvage What You Can

Salvage What You Can

Whenever a key employee quits, it means a huge loss for the organization. It’s not something to take lightly, and here are some measures to mitigate or possibly reverse the impact.

Show Your Hand

A resignation that comes out of nowhere may well indicate a communication failure between yourself and your direct report.

If an employee is willing, take him out of the professional environment, and talk to him just as a person. Over a glass of wine, tell him outright how you feel about his work, and where you believe he’s headed within the organization.

Do some digging to identify the principal reasons he’s chosen to move on. Is he bored with the position? Is it due to a personal conflict? Maybe he’s leaving for a job with less stress.

An open and honest conversation, where everything is laid on the table, helps you identify what isn’t working. Maybe there’s an opportunity to make a counteroffer. If you re-fashion the role into something more suited to his preferences, then everybody wins.

Although it may be too late at this point, extending a counteroffer is worth the effort. It ends the professional relationship on a positive note.

Patch Something Together

A resignation needn’t be seen as a funeral wake. Maybe you can’t convince the employee to stay, but they don’t need to be gone forever. She may offer to do contract work, or be used as a resource on future projects.

In order to create some continuity after the departure, ask if you can keep in touch. Even schedule some days to reconnect in the upcoming weeks or months.

Taking steps to recoup whatever you can helps everyone regain balance in the wake of a significant resignation.

Work Through the Aftermath

Work Through the Aftermath

After the initial shock of a surprise resignation, you may transition quickly into panic. Who’s going to pick up the slack? Will you have to come in early and work into the evenings to be sure everything gets done?

There’s a lot on your plate, that’s for sure. A steady approach ensures a smooth ride through this interim phase.

Discuss With the Team

Offboarding rituals reflect on the company’s culture and values as much as any other process in the workplace. Many team members may be devastated by the departure, and so make an effort to sit down with everyone to break the news face-to-face.

In addition to announcing the persons’ resignation, take the time to celebrate everything he contributed to the company. Recap his achievements, and wish him well in new endeavors.

Additionally, communicate a plan to the team for going forward. Explain how things will roll in the interim before a replacement is hired. This settles the team, and calms any jitters they may feel.

Break It to the Boss

We’ve been told that people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. It’s hard to not to see a resignation as a reflection on your performance as a manager. You may be worried that the departure will hurt you professionally.

In the interest of the company, it’s necessary to brush these concerns aside. You and your boss both know that resignations are a risk any organization assumes. Now is the time to behave professionally, and quickly implement a plan for going forward.

Divide the Work

It takes some finesse handling all the additional work following a resignation. Have open conversations with your boss and the team, letting them understand the pressure you’re under.

Sometimes it’s hard to hand things over, but no one should have to do the work of two. Carefully delegate work to others, and openly discuss competing priorities to receive advice on what to focus on now, and what to complete later.

When everyone shoulders some of the burden, it’s easier to make it through.

Hire a Replacement

You’re probably eager to find a replacement right way. Work closely with human resources to find a good fit, and put things in place when the new hire arrives. This way, she feels supported in the new role.

Offboard with Grace

Offboard with Grace

As mentioned, a resignation needn’t be a final farewell. A client chooses to discontinue services for a variety of reasons, and so it shouldn’t be seen as a personal affront. Rather, it’s a window of opportunity to build a bridge and maintain a professional connection.

An offboarding process that maintains strong ties and keeps the door open can lead to referrals and boomerang employees, among other great benefits.

Here are some guidelines for a smooth offboarding.

Use an Offboarding Checklist

Utilize a solid offboarding process that follows compliance laws and gathers technology. Additionally, whenever possible, ask the departing employee to transfer job responsibilities and wrap up current projects.

Keep the Door Open

Following a strong offboarding process allows an organization to amass a wealth of social capital over the years. Taking steps to keep in touch with employees can be a simple process that you repeat whenever someone leaves.

Sending out periodic emails or newsletters to former employees keeps them in the loop about everything going on in your company, and lets them know you want to retain the relationship. Should they ever decide to return, they’ll know that the door is still open. And if not, they’re far more likely to send a good reference your way.

Stem the Bleed

Stem the Bleed

A resignation, although stressful, is the reality of any organization. And with the growing gig economy, job tenures on average are becoming shorter and shorter.

Learning from a resignation allows you to take measures to diminish the fallout from future resignations.

Plan for It

If you anticipate that most employees will only stay with the organization for two years or more, it allows you to approach the position strategically.

Consolidate the onboarding process, to make sure the employees’ time is spent as efficiently as possible. Schedule several one-on-ones to quickly identify things they don’t understand.

These measures allow you to make the most of an employee while they’re with you, and have an efficient transition after they depart.

Streamline Processes and Cross-Train

Losing an employee can be like a house of cards falling down. If someone works independently from everyone else, it’s very difficult to pick up the ball after she leaves!

Documenting processes and roles eliminates this risk. It makes every task trainable and repeatable. Additionally, utilize opportunities to cross-train. This way, when one person leaves, someone else can take on the role for a time.

Learn From the Exit Interview

Be sure to ask many questions in the exit interview. What would he or she have changed about the position? Was there a specific incident that led to the departure? How might it have been prevented?

Next, take these lessons and apply them to the current team. Identify the steps you’re taking as an organization to train, develop and challenge employees.

When you have a great system in place, you can move on after a resignation without a hitch.


Losing a key employee can be a huge blow. But you needn’t lose your bearings.

Initially, take some time to talk to the employee face-to-face, to identify her reasons for quitting, and salvage any opportunities for maintaining contact. Taking steps to break the news to the team and carefully delegating work keeps everything in tact until a new person is hired.

Resignations are becoming the norm of workplaces, and having processes in place mitigates the impact and allows for smooth transitions.

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