Handling a Resignation… Gracefully

All managers will experience this, someone deciding to leave your team. So many thoughts and feelings run through you as the leaver is communicating their decision to you. Sometimes it’s completely unexpected, other times you knew it was just a matter of time. Either way, the experience can be a shock to the system and a knock to the ego.

We’ve all seen this quote before, “People leave managers, not jobs”. I’ve seen this to be true the majority of the time. As the manager, this can be a large, hard and bitter pill to swallow, but it is extremely important you do not take this decision and the reasons personally. Rather, focus on all the things you can learn from this experience.

The Great Resignation is still in progress, and most managers are still not prepared, especially when the leaver is a key team member. Many managers handle resignations badly, making the experience more awkward and uncomfortable for both parties. This is not a break up, it is a professional parting of ways, and this is how it should be handled… professionally.

When someone makes the decision to leave, expectedly or unexpectedly, as the manager, you should:

  • Understand why the person is leaving
  • Ensure the leaving experience is positive
  • Aim to have a strong handover and plan
  • Communicate the person’s leaving quickly
  • Mind how you talk about the person
  • Recognise and celebrate the person on their last day
  • Take the time to look back

Understand why the person is leaving

Attempt to have an open and honest conversation. Most people will not be completely honest about their reasons for leaving, especially when being asked why by their manager. Accept and respect this, and thank them for their time. This should be a one-time conversation unless the leaver chooses to bring it up again themselves.

Repeatedly asking why they are leaving is a sign that you are not handling the departure appropriately nor professionally. You are not accepting or respecting their choice as an individual and you are not respecting their personal boundaries. Put quite bluntly, because of your position of power, this type of behaviour is a form of bullying.

Don’t push this conversation and make things awkward. You are not life partners, you are not required more than what is contractually obligated, let it go, let them go. Your role is to simply to Understand, Acknowledge and Respect their decision and how much they choose to tell you about their decision.

Ensure the leaving experience is positive

Your key priority as a manager is to make the leaving experience as light, smooth and positive as possible. Your meetings should be focussed on the leaver, how they are feeling, progress they are making on the handover and understanding the support they need. They should continue to be included in meetings as well as team rituals and social events.

Keep one-to-one meetings professional, productive and about them. Not about you and your feelings.

Please, please, please do not:

  • Talk the majority of the meeting (this should be the case with all your meetings by the way, if you’re speaking the majority of the time… it’s a bad meeting)
  • Express assumptions about the person’s reasons for leaving
  • Continuously ask questions about why they are leaving
  • Make the person feel guilty
  • Force the person to stay longer than they want to

This last point is pretty important. Discuss the notice period and let the leaver take the lead on how they want to wrap up. Wanting to use annual leave to shorten their notice period may seem like a scary idea, but keeping someone on who has already mentally checked out can be even more damaging and certainly does not guarantee you will get more out of them. Be mindful that you are not extending simply for your own sense of comfort. It may be a warm blanket but it’s also a false one.

If they have requested a shorter notice period, the leaver is likely to give much more if you allow them to handover over a period of 2 weeks, rather than 4 weeks — for example. Work out what works best for the department and be careful to not drag things out unnecessarily. This will only lead to more resentment on the leaver’s side.

If it is necessary the leaver work their whole notice period or beyond, ensure there are clear objectives in place to justify the time.

Again, remember to stay focussed on making the leaving experience positive and productive for both parties.

Aim to have a strong handover and plan

Understand the current responsibilities and projects of the team member and prioritise what needs to be closed off or handed over. The leaver needs to develop a handover plan and document detailing the current status of all open tasks, next steps that need to be taken and the correlating deadlines.

This is a critical opportunity for knowledge transfer. A lot of knowledge is often lost when someone leaves. Sometimes this can’t be helped but a lot of the time it is due to poor internal procedures. This can be somewhat rectified when someone is leaving, using the notice period to work on building detailed documentation to reduce the loss of knowledge. This information can be built upon and updated as time goes on, and is a fantastic tool for supporting the onboarding of new team members.

Managers, be super selective about the projects you want your leaver to close off. They need to have time to work on handover documentation. I would go as far to say, it is more important for knowledge to be documented than for one-off projects to be closed off.

Communicate the person’s leaving quickly

Colleagues need to be made aware of someone leaving as soon as possible. This gives them time to digest the news and say goodbye. When people leave suddenly and with no announcement, this can can be traumatic for the leaver and the colleagues left behind. The leaver will not feel valued, leaving with a bitter taste in their mouths. Colleagues will make negative assumptions about how people are valued within the business and the reasons behind the departure.

Work with the leaver to agree how their departure will be communicated. What are they most comfortable with? Who will take ownership of the communication, to which groups and when? Do not underestimate the power of having a communication plan.

The communication itself should be clear, positive and personal.

Mind how you talk about the person

Always talk about your leaver positively and respectfully, both within the department and outside of the department. Managers who only focus on the negatives of a leaver show a lack of maturity, professionalism and gratitude. It also makes them appear to be untrustworthy. Don’t try to save face by destroying the leaver’s reputation. It will reflect poorly on you. This type of behaviour also stops you from being accountable for any role you may have played in their exit.

Recognise and celebrate the person on their last day

Do not let your leaver slip away quietly. Recognise and celebrate them on their last day. What have their achievements been? What impact have they made? Try to provide specific examples, this adds more weight and value to what you are communicating and shows that you have a good understanding of the contributions made.

Encourage them to arrange a leaving do, if they haven’t already. Sort out a card and present. Send the leaver off on a high.

Look back

Take the time to look back and consider where perhaps you could have done things better as a manager. You would be kidding yourself if you believe you had not played a role, you always do. Looking back in this way will help you to be a better manager to your remaining team as well as whoever joins your team next. You cannot please everyone, and your management style won’t be for everyone, but there’s always something you can learn and implement going forward.

To sum up, do not approach this experience from a place of fear and disappointment. These are negative and personal feelings that will impact your decisions and communications when dealing with a leaver. Instead, focus on letting the leaver go in the most positive way possible, losing as little knowledge as possible. This will leave you both in a positive space, allowing for healthy and positive closure.

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Lola Oguntokun

Lola Oguntokun

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I help build, shape and champion innovative companies and culture.