Should You Celebrate When Employees Leave?

I was talking with some HR professionals last week, and the conversation of transparency came up. What happens if managers care so much about their employees that they help or prepare them to leave the company to pursue the next step in their careers? Is that a good thing, because you’ve successfully grown someone to the level that they are prepared for that? Or is it a problem, since you’re turning over otherwise solid workers that could be contributing to your bottom line? To frame the discussion, I shared the story below that I received from Allied Talent in one of their marketing emails.

Recruiting, engaging, and retaining entrepreneurial employees depends in large part on a manager's ability to discuss and facilitate career development. However, recruiters, managers, and executives are often poorly-equipped to lead these conversations. Toby Murdock, the founder and CEO of Boulder-based content marketing company Kapost, set out to fix that. His goal: to make his company the best place in Colorado to launch and accelerate a career in high tech… Thanks to a compelling employee value proposition around career transformation, Toby has successfully recruited entrepreneurial employees into the company who might have otherwise been out of reach.

Once at your company, those entrepreneurial employees require high-trust 1:1 conversations with their manager. A paradox of The Alliance is that, as a manager, acknowledging that an employee might move to another company someday is a display of honesty that’s necessary in career conversations. It’ll also help you truly understand your employee’s values and aspirations. Building trust through honesty, and having a better handle on what your employee really wants, are key ingredients to improving employee retention — lengthening job tenures.

So, as you can see, there are pros and cons to this decision. On one hand, you need managers that aren’t afraid of losing people. I have worked for managers in the past that were so concerned about keeping me that they didn’t actually have my best interests in mind, which ended up driving me away instead of making me feel appreciated.

On the other hand, I can recall a manager from my past that was phenomenal about finding ways to help me grow and develop. One day she had a frank conversation with me about my future prospects, and she said that I might have to leave one day to get the growth opportunities that she couldn’t provide. That was a somewhat scary prospect for me at the time, because I felt like I had a lot to learn from her and didn’t want to consider leaving.

I’d say she was in the small minority of managers in terms of being able to have those kinds of conversations. Most do not have the capability or the emotional intelligence to be able to openly admit to their limitations and to discuss working at other organizations as potential career steps.

What is interesting is this: if I had left, I would have been a perfect prospect for a boomerang employee somewhere down the line. The kicker is that I would be even more valuable to the company with a larger reservoir of experience and skills to pull from. For clarification: in that specific instance, my boss ended up leaving due to health issues, and I was able to step into her position and continue my career development under the same roof.

So, should we celebrate?

People quit their jobs for a lot of reasons. If we take out the resignations that are due to poor management, culture mismatch, and so on, we are left with those employees that are truly leaving to advance their careers. The question that you need to ask yourself is how you should feel when they move on.

On one hand, this is helpful for your recruiters and others internally to see where the perceived limit is for employees in terms of development. If staff are consistently leaving around the 18-month mark, are they bored? Have they mastered “everything” in terms of their job duties? Are they topped out in terms of compensation? What is driving them to seek other employment?

You have a few ways you can approach this. First, we all know that we’re not going to keep employees forever. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that Baby Boomers changed jobs on average nearly 12 times between age 18 and 48. (So much for the myth that they worked the same place “forever” and Millennials are job-hopping maniacs.) This means we only have a few years with each employee statistically, anyway. The way I saw this when I was in corporate HR was as an opportunity to make as much of an impact as possible in the lives of the employees while they were associated with the company. And if they left, especially to start their own business or for professional growth, I never held it against them.

The other way is to do like Kapost has done and actually brand yourself as the starting block for a great career in your industry. The company could have looked the other way or tried to hide this face of its culture, but instead it celebrates it and uses the collective success of its alumni as a benchmark for the impact it is making on the world. Pretty cool stuff, no?

Those Entrepreneurial Workers

There are tons of articles and experts talking about how companies need to hire entrepreneurial workers. I’ve had a hard time narrowing down the definition, but I think of it as those people who can take measured risks and bring innovative ideas to the table. It’s not a trait seen in every employee, but for those that have it, they can offer incredible value to their employers. I love telling the story about an employee years ago that suggested a new use for an existing product, ultimately driving more than $2 million in sales from that single idea. The person could have downplayed it or avoided sharing the idea, but because they did, they (and the company) benefited greatly.

I’ll say it again: if my employees left to start their own businesses, I was thrilled for them. Yes, they often left gaps. Think about it–those workers smart and hard-working enough to start and run their own business are probably valuable contributors to your organization in a variety of ways. It’s easy to get frustrated or bothered by this. My former boss, the CEO and founder of the company, was often upset when he would receive this kind of news. I would always cock my head to the side and say, “Yeah, those people that leave their employer to go start their own business and pursue their passion are crazy. Why did you do that again?” :-)

I’m reading a book right now called The 10% Entrepreneur that discusses how to diversify your career by getting involved in other companies, startups, etc. without all of the risk that entrepreneurship brings. It’s very interesting and worth a read if you are looking for a way to breathe some excitement back into your work without leaving your day job behind.

There is also a larger conversation about the future of work that is taking place. With the rise of nontraditional workers and work arrangements, I predict that we will see more of these entrepreneurial workers taking a leap than ever before. Instead of making it difficult on them, companies would be smart to offer them flexible working arrangements and options to stay on part-time while they build their business (assuming it’s in a non-competitive market). Just like it works with older workers, this is an option to continue getting valuable insights and productivity from these workers before they ultimately leave the firm. It also eases the transition and offers a way to get the new workers trained up over time.

So, at the end of the day, whether you celebrate your workers that leave or not, I will share a little tidbit with you: they will leave eventually. Whether they die, retire, resign, or get fired, your employees will not be there forever. Decide how you want to handle their departures and stick with it, because that aspect of your culture is one that employees never forget. If you terminate people immediately that give notice, don’t expect future employees to give notice. If you treat each person kindly and with compassion, despite the fact that they could be leaving you in the lurch, then people will respond in kind.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What kinds of reactions are common when people are leaving your organization? Do you think you could ever get to the point where you would celebrate those seeking career advancement opportunities? 

3 thoughts on “Should You Celebrate When Employees Leave?

  1. Bonita Martin

    I share your perspective, Ben. It takes a mature manager to have a career conversation with an employee that may take the valued employee out of their department, let alone their company. Celebrate with those who are moving on to new positions that meet their personal or professional goals and leave the door open in case things do not work out as planned.

    1. Ben Post author

      I think one of the last things you said was most profound, Bonita. Managers that respond harshly or rudely to this announcement burn a bridge. Often it’s the employee that fears that, but research shows that hiring alumni back is a great source of candidates quality-wise. This can make or break that strategy for companies. Thanks for sharing your insights!

  2. Devorah Allen

    This is one I struggle with as the Director of L & D. I want to have career conversations and do career mapping, but have very little mobility within the organizational structure. Not a lot of open positions at any time. I thought a Hi-Po group would be a good start – with the caveat that we do not guarantee a management position after they are done. However at least we could start the succession planning for management positions that way. So much to do…

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