No matter how hard you try to create a supportive and fulfilling workplace, the day will come when you find out that a valued employee is thinking of leaving or has already accepted an offer outside the firm. What you do at that moment — whether you decide to convince the person to stay or let them go gracefully — matters not just to that specific situation but to your organization for years to come.
Should you convince them to stay?
The first question is whether you want to let this valuable employee go. Sometimes you are lucky enough to find out that someone is considering another job before they have committed to it. In that case, there is still a chance to retain one of your best people — and you should do what you can, within reason.
Here are some things you should do, all of which assume that your employee is aware that you know they are considering another position. If not, start by confirming what you have heard.
Take the person out for coffee. Find out what they’re thinking about. No matter how open and supportive an environment you think your organization has created — you might be wrong. Ask about their concerns and their hopes for the future. Be prepared that you may hear a few things that are uncomfortable for you. Sometimes you are the last person to find out some of the problems within your group — no matter how approachable you try to be.
Set up an atmosphere of joint problem solving. Presumably your employee wants things that they are not getting in their current position. You would like to keep them. In order to get there, you’ll have to approach this together.
Sometimes (particularly early in a person’s career) money is a big part of the problem. People entering their first job are often happy just to be employed, and so they don’t negotiate that hard on salary. Once you’ve figured out how valuable this person is — and they’ve figured out how valuable they are to any organization — they may feel they’re not making enough. If that’s the case, try to address it. There is nothing to be gained by nickel-and-diming a keeper. Any problem facing a star employee that can be solved by the proper application of money should be solved quickly.
More often, the issue is bigger than salary and you’ll need to think creatively. Ask a lot of questions about your star’s career goals, ambitions, and desires. Are there other ways to help them succeed that they haven’t thought about? Suggest new projects, mentors, and training. Consider helping them to get an advanced degree if they need one. Give them a sense of where you would like to see them end up in the next few years and commit to helping them get there.
One reason people stay at their jobs is that they feel supported by the people they work for. Show that support.
When to let go gracefully
Of course, you can’t win them all. Sometimes there are hidden problems you didn’t know about or can’t solve. Sometimes your star wants a new adventure. Many early-career employees just want to work for someone else to get a feel for how the field works. And sometimes you don’t find out about your star’s departure until they have already accepted a position somewhere else.
In this case, start by congratulating them on the new position. You may have been a supervisor to that person in the workplace, but most importantly, you’re a colleague. And you want to see your colleagues succeed, even if that success takes them elsewhere. A gesture of goodwill like wishing someone well goes a long way toward creating a healthy long-term relationship with that star.
You want your star to feel good about the organization as they might be back some day. There is an increasing trend toward boomerang employees who leave an organization for a while and then come back. You can smooth the path for a star’s return by letting them know you care about their future. If they decide that they were actually better off working for you, they will remember your supportive attitude. You can even remind them that the door is always open.
Even if your star never comes back, they are likely to remain in your sphere. Perhaps they will work for a rival firm or a company in a neighboring business. These days, many big projects require a number of organizations to band together to complete a complex project. That means that your star may be in the position to recommend your firm for business or even to partner up to bid for or complete a new project. You want to be the first one they call in the future.
So treat your departing employee as a potential ambassador for your firm. Not only might they direct business toward you in the future, but they might even recommend your firm as a place for their new colleagues to consider working if they need a change.
To be graceful in the face of a departure, you have to bear in mind that business is not a zero-sum game. The more people out there in the world with a positive impression of you and your firm, the more opportunities you will have down the line to succeed. Even the people who leave may still end up being valuable.
Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. He has written over 150 scholarly papers on topics including reasoning, decision making, and motivation. His new book is Bring Your Brain to Work: Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do it Well, and Advance Your Career (HBR Press).