3 Steps to Take When Your Star Employee Leaves (Screaming ‘Noooo!’ Isn’t One of Them)

May 8, 2019

Your star employee makes everyone on your team better. They can light up a room or find a solution to a knotty problem with equal ease. But, alas, they’ve just told you they’re leaving.

You stifle the impulse to scream “Nooooo!” and instead say, “Congratulations!” You let them know they’ll be missed and, once you’ve taken a few deep breaths, start planning your next steps.

To both stem the bleeding and maybe even flip this departure into a long-term gain, here are three steps you should take if the star of your team ever announces they’ve found greener pastures:

1. Conduct an exit interview — and act on your learnings

Most companies view exit interviews primarily as a troubleshooting exercise: Let’s find out what drove our top performer out. (Which ignores the possibility that as a star, your exiting employee may simply have received an offer they couldn’t refuse.) But with broader goals, an exit interview can deliver more than a laundry list of problems to be fixed.

One study concluded that a well-done exit interview can shed light on what does and doesn’t work at your company, promote engagement, enhance retention, and even generate some competitive intelligence. Finally, it can turn departing employees into ambassadors for your company and its brand.

Make sure to schedule the interview before the departing employee has mentally checked out — don’t wait until their final week in the office — and have second-line managers (the manager of the departing employee’s supervisor) conduct the interview in a kind of skip-level meeting. Record the conversation, take notes, and — this is critical — act on what you learn.

The interview should touch on both positive and negative aspects of the employee’s experience. Questions should include: Why are you leaving? What did you like most about your job here? What could have been improved before you left? And, if you were CEO, what three things would you change about the company?

After getting your star’s take on their manager, explore their viewpoints on colleagues, the company culture, and the working conditions. Use the interview as a chance to gain some competitive intelligence too: What does the compensation, benefits, and opportunities for advancement look like at other companies in your industry? Finally, make sure you find out what their role at your company actually entails. Most of the time, it will be quite different than the last job description you posted for that position.

Ask questions without any trace of animosity or censure. This will allow you to get the most complete and insightful responses from the employee and to improve the chance that the person leaving will have kind words about your company in the future. Gallup says that a positive exit experience makes a departing employee nearly three times more likely to recommend the company than a neutral or negative experience.

2. Talk to your team as quickly as possible to squelch gossip and panic — and to remind them that change creates opportunities

As soon as you possibly can, meet with your employee’s team. You want to curb any rumors and make sure you’re there when they hear the news. You need to end any rumblings about “Who’s next?”

Ideally, your departing star should tell the team first. Then you need to talk to them. Let them know that while the leave-taking is a setback, you’re happy that your colleague has a new opportunity and you have a plan in place for what will happen in that employee’s remaining days. Let the team know how their colleague’s work will be covered until a replacement is found.

Stress that it is not the end of the world and that change is always an opportunity as well as a challenge. Maybe it means that work and responsibility can be redistributed in a way that better plays to the strengths and aspirations of the remaining team members. Maybe some tasks or projects can be jettisoned to make way for work that will be both more engaging and more highly valued.

Let your team know you’ll support them.

And then listen.

Find out how the team, collectively and individually, is feeling. And find out what parts of their jobs team members love and what parts they dread, and then try to find ways to get them more of the former and less of the latter.

3. Schedule a round of stay interviews with your other critical employees

There is one other opportunity to collect information and insights that can bolster retention, team morale, and productivity: a round of stay interviews, which can both provide you with vital intelligence and assure your best performers that you care about them.

You don’t have to wait until someone critical to your success is walking out the door to conduct stay interviews. But they’re always essential once someone does.

And they give you an opportunity to learn more about the people you manage at the same time you guarantee that your best people are doing work that both challenges and engages them. Your stay interview should include questions about what aspects of their job get them excited, what aspects they dread, what their dream job would look like, and what do they find most aggravating about their current role and responsibilities.

“The stay interview is an opportunity to build trust with employees,” writes management consultant Susan Heathfield, “and a chance to assess the degree of employee satisfaction and engagement that exists in a department or company.”

Invest time in stay interviews and you may not have to invest it in recruiting replacements for your top performers.

Final thoughts: Muster up every possible bit of grace and gratitude to send your star off on a good note

When you announce that your star employee is leaving, make sure to celebrate their milestone achievements at your company. Don’t hesitate to talk about the qualities you’ll miss going forward. This both boosts the chances that this person becomes a star ambassador and signals to your other team members that you’re not rattled by the announcement — you truly believe that life will not only go on, it will continue to flourish.

And once your company has conducted its exit and stay interviews, you can make good on your suggestion to the team that the departure will lead to positive changes and new opportunities.

Finally, there’s one other powerful reason to send your star off feeling good about their time at your company: A study in Personnel Psychology showed that boomerang employees can make up 10% to 20% of a company’s “new” hires. So maybe your “star” employee will actually turn out to be a “comet,” orbiting back to your company to once again bring their light to your team.

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