How do you treat people when they leave?

How do you treat people when they leave?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

From day one, Sue landed like a firecracker. After the grind of a tough few months, co-workers said they loved her enthusiasm and energy.

Yet despite that promising start, excitement dissipated once the honeymoon period ended, and after a few more months, it was clear she wasn’t going to work out.

Like many others, it had nothing to do with her skills on the job—people often get hired for what they can do and then leave or are fired because of who they are. There simply wasn’t enough overlap between how she worked and others did things. Which made her a cultural ‘mis-fit’.

When people don’t work out it’s disappointing for everyone and sometimes devastating to them. Today, work is often also a social proxy, so to paraphrase poet David Whyte, losing your job feels like being told ‘you can’t go home’.

In my experience, the lionshare of effort and thought gets paid to so-called ‘onboarding’. (And seriously, can we find a term that doesn’t make starting a job sound like a set of cruise ship instructions?) Done well, welcoming workers into the fold takes weeks and even months, with some organisations hitting the cult-like on the ‘how we do things’ meter.

The also horribly named ‘off-boarding’ gets relatively scant attention. Subject to processes bordering on dismissive, individuals often are abandoned, left to sink or swim—no life preserver in sight.

While the details vary there are generally only two reasons someone leaves. You don’t want or need them. Or they don’t want or need you.

The rest is details. A friend says, ‘How people leave will tell you everything about why they needed to go’. It’s a truism I’ve seen play out plenty. But while you can’t control their choices—you still get to decide about yours.

Yes. People leaving is fraught, even when you both agree it’s the best thing. The circumstances consume a lot of time and energy. There’s work to wrap up or hand over. Pesky policy and legal obligations to manage. You want to start finding their replacement. And need to hustle to fill the gap while you do.

This is why, beyond policies, even organisations that care deeply about their workers can slip without clear principles to guide what to do when people leave. It should surprise no one that I suggest values play the biggest part in determining your approach. Focus on how you behave, and it will ripple across other’s experiences.

For example, perhaps one of your values is to “show compassion.” Applied to Sue’s situation, where you’ve realised she can’t succeed in your culture, you could implement the hiring policy and move on. Or you could accept your part in hiring her in the first place, talk to her kindly and frankly about what didn’t fit. Extend some extra severance pay and offer to act as a reference so she doesn’t suffer the hit to her resume of leaving within a short period.

By all means, protect your organisation. Still, if how you do that fundamentally undermines people’s humanity and dignity, then you’re creating downstream problems for them and others.

Ask any group to talk about their experiences from leaving past jobs and I hope you have a box of tissues handy. Their hurt has deep hooks and comes with them. Even those who think they have left it behind often have sub-conscious baggage weighing down their performance and ability to thrive in new roles.

Hearing how an organisation treat people when they left and you’ll learn a lot about what that company cares about.

Still, some people will do bad things. But you acting with grace is never a bad choice. And ratcheting your policies and practices to protect yourself and punish the few people who take advantage of your kindness is not the answer. Instead, it punishes the majority of others who want to show up, do the right thing and feel that what they do matters.

As Maya Angelou famously said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Even if the parting isn’t amicable. With care, their experience can still avoid slings and arrows and perhaps in time, some goodwill. Even if that’s not with the person leaving, others in the organisation are watching, taking note of what happens and will remember.

Nothing banks or erodes value that is stored in a brand faster than word of mouth. So, simply put. Treat people well and watch your brand grow.

Thanks for reading.

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