Breaking up is hard to do

What to do when it’s time to move on

By Sue Sodek


By this point in your life, you have likely been on one side of the table or the other, either as an employee resigning from a job or as a manager hearing an employee tell you they are going elsewhere. Read on to learn how to navigate these conversations professionally and legally while protecting your reputation, safeguarding your business, and ideally, maintaining work relationships going forward.

There are any number of reasons why someone may decide to move on from their current role. Those who have been in the same role for some time may feel as though they have reached a stagnation point where they both no longer have anything to learn, nor is there any compelling reason to sharewhat they know. They may be unable to see a path forward if they’ve reached the top of the pay range in their current role, and promotion is unlikely due to the size of the company or the tenure of higher-ranking employees. Or perhaps they have disagreements with their current supervisor or the style of management in place. Whatever the reason, the grass has shown itself to be a particularly fine shade of green elsewhere, and the decision has been made to resign.

If you find yourself thinking this describes you, there are some steps you can take before and during your notice period to ensure your exit is professional. And if you are the manager on the receiving end of the dreaded two week’s notice, you should have a process in place to ensure all exits are smooth ones.


Giving notice – as an employee

The first and genuinely most important point to make here is if you are going to quit your job, ensure you have a signed employment contract in place prior to informing your current employer you intend to leave. If you don’t have it in writing – you don’t actually have the job. Once you have locked down all the details, it’s time to have the talk. While some managers will take resignations verbally, best practice is to write your intentions down.

A handwritten letter or an email are both acceptable. Keep a copy of anything you provide. Use straightforward, clear language that details your intended timing and thank the company for your time with them. This is not the place to air grievances or settle scores – keep it brief and polite. A typical notice period is two weeks, but employment contracts vary. Check to see if your agreement has any termination language or if your company has a resignation policy in place. Remember, leaving on good terms leaves a pathway open for you, whereas leaving on bad terms jeopardizes your future marketability and will prevent you from having a place to bounce back to if the new role does not work out.


Getting notice – as a manager

No one likes to hear they are losing a star player and it can be tempting to skip the process and rush into worrying about back filling the role. But when one of your employees says they are leaving, take your time and follow the proper steps. Firstly, insist on a written resignation letter that is dated and signed. Should there be future disputes, this will be the first piece of evidence a lawyer or mediator will request.

Next, you’ll need to decide how long you want this person to stay. Whether to allow someone to work out their notice period or ask them to leave immediately varies greatly depending on the circumstances and every exit is different. If they are likely to cause disruptions or discontent amongst those staying behind, you may want to offer to pay out the notice period (if necessary) and have them finish immediately.

If it’s possible that given this notice time, they may walk off with clients or other staff, or if they were already on your radar as an underperformer, wish them all the best and hustle them on their way. If they are likely to continue to contribute effectively and you don’t have any concerns around clients or staff poaching, have them work their notice period.

And finally, leading up to the worker’s final day, you’ll want to ensure you’ve booked an exit interview and retrieved any company property including keys, passwords, tools, phones and credit cards. You should develop a checklist to this effect in advance that includes materials, access points, passwords and any other security measures that may need reviewing when someone leaves.


The Stay Interview

A Stay Interview is similar to an Exit Interview, in that the goal is to probe for information on what you can be doing better as an employer. The difference here is you can use this information now in the hopes of keeping your staff engaged, happy and in their roles longer, instead of just learning what went wrong after the fact. The benefits of asking what might be pushing an employee to look elsewhere for work before they actually give notice are obvious. By knowing what they want, you’ll retain more of your key players and save yourself the time and cost of recruiting and training new workers. Stay Interviews can be conducted at any time.

To conduct a Stay Interview, start by setting your employee at ease by letting them know you are planning to have conversations with all of your strong performers, just to find out how things are going. Ask open ended questions, and this is key, actually listen to what they have to say. It doesn’t sound all that difficult, but in practice we are so often locked into problem solving mode while at work, it can be really tough to pipe down and let someone tell you where they think you are going wrong. And it’s even harder not to interrupt and start offering solutions and promises, but remember your goal in the Stay Interview is just to gather information.

Once you’ve compiled and reviewed the employee feedback, look for commonalities. Is there a skills deficit that can be solved with more training? Are employees under stress due to wage rates, hours or working conditions? Is there a supervisor that consistently receives negative feedback? The issues raised should become action items.

Let the Stay Interview become an ongoing process; when you’ve made a change, take the time to find out if it’s had the desired impact. A Stay Interview need only last 15 to 20 minutes. Or to put it another way, investing the time it takes for an average coffee break could save you thousands of dollars in recruitment and training costs, shore up employee relationships and cement your reputation as an employer that cares. In today’s job market, this could be just the thing you need to avoid that messy breakup.


Exit Interviews

Ideally, there shouldn’t be surprises in the employment relationship, even when it comes to the end. If you are regularly checking in with your staff you should have a good grasp on how things are going. Still, when a separation does occur, someone on their way out the door can provide excellent insights into how your business is running and what it’s like to come to work for you on a day-to-day basis. Take the time to talk to employees who are leaving, so you’ll be in a better position to keep the ones that are staying happier.


Exit as an employee

If you are an employee and you’ve been invited to participate in an exit interview, proceed with caution. As your mum likely taught you: if you can’t think of anything nice to say, don’t say anything! If you have genuinely constructive feedback that might have a positive impact on those you’re leaving behind and you feel the person on the other side of this conversation is open to hearing it, by all means, share it with your manager. Be polite, be specific and avoid painting the company in a fully negative light. You are under no obligation to tell your current employer any details about the new position. As an example, if you are asked about your reasons for going and you dislike your supervisor or the pay is terrible, you could say you feel the new place has a more positive management style and the pay is more in line with the current market. If there are specific, actionable items such as better equipment, specialized training, perks or benefits that would have kept you in your role, let management know. However, if you feel that any information you share may be misconstrued, or reflect negatively on you, it may be best to keep your insights to yourself in the interests of protecting your reputation or future opportunities.


Exit as a manager

Whenever possible, speak to each and every person leaving, regardless of the length of time they work for you or the reasons they give you for leaving. Quite often, staff wait until the exit to be completely honest with their employer and what they have to share may help you uncover potential problem areas. Aim to meet in a neutral location, close to the end of their notice period. Using broad, open-ended questions, probe for what went well, what should have gone differently and what they suggest you do to change. If they are leaving for a new role and are open to sharing information about where they are going, ask about pay rates, location and other perks; this can help you understand if you are still competitive in your marketplace or act as a warning that you’re likely to lose more staff for the same reasons. While non-compete clauses are now unenforceable in most of Canada, the exit interview is an excellent time to remind departing staff of any non-disclosure clauses in their employment contracts. And one final note, this is not the time to make a counter offer – exit interviews should be done only when all else has failed and their final decision has been made.

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