How to Break Up with Employees
To Kim N.: I’m sorry you were dismissed with anger and haste. To David S.: I wish I’d told you that even though you worked with us just 89 days, I don’t regret that we gave it a try. To Sam C.: I apologize for sending a signal that we didn’t value every minute you were employed by us. To David W.: I wish we’d thrown you a going-away party after you resigned, given all that you contributed to our business. To countless others: I was a coward for having someone else deliver the news of your termination, and I wish I’d met with you directly before we parted ways.
After employing–and saying farewell to—hundreds of people over the past two decades, my list of apologies could go on forever. But one thing is certain: I never want to add anyone to this list again. And if you’re in any type of leadership position, you should keep your apology list short, too.
For most of my life as an entrepreneur I got angry when employees resigned. I felt betrayed, broken up with. I seethed about losing a colleague who knew my complete strategy, my darkest fears, and my many weaknesses. How could they just take off, cast my company and me aside, and think about some new professional relationship to make work-love to?
When I felt rejected I turned against departing employees. Early in the history of BzzAgent, my fourth startup, a key employee gave notice. I was bitter and frustrated and responded as many do: I started treating him like an outsider, re-crafted his image to the rest of the organization (“actually he wasn’t great at…”), and began the process of working around him. Within two weeks, the divide was huge; we exchanged half-hearted goodbyes and he left with a shrug. And even though today we still share similar interests and are active in the same business communities, we don’t have a relationship. Indeed, we hardly speak. (To Kevin W.: I really valued those early days when you were one of the first-ever believers in our vision. Thanks for inspiring me way back when.)
A “bad break up” with an employee is a huge mistake. The one who leaves and the one who is left both must understand that the emotions at the time of departure—the frustration about mistakes that were made, the disagreements over strategy, and the heated debates won’t mean much in a short time. Bad memories will fade. What remains is a bond from shared experiences.
It wasn’t until I’d sold my company (to Tesco in June 2011) that I realized how deeply these relationships mattered. Post-sale I tried to enlist my head of marketing to throw a BzzAgent alumni party, with the vision that we should have one last celebration with everyone who helped impact the business. He politely informed me that many people might not show up, as some are still disappointed and bitter about how they were treated when they shoved off. It was then that I thought of all the relationships that were lost as employees left. I vowed then to handle departures differently. I decided to maintain bonds instead of breaking them and it became clear to me that staying connected to former employees is more important now more than ever. Here’s why:
- We are infinitely connected in a social world. I started BzzAgent as a word-of-mouth marketing company but it took me too long to realize that positive word of mouth plays a big role in building a good company where the best talent wants to work. LinkedIn, Branchout, Bullhorn Reach, and other social networks help people share business contacts. Former employees are easy for client and employee prospects to find to check your reputation. They can drive business and talent to (and away from) your company. Former colleagues may even become future collaborators: When Joe Chernov, our onetime head of PR, left BzzAgent in 2009, our relationship shifted but continued to evolve into shared projects, co-authored thought pieces, ideation sessions, retweets and Facebook updates. Where our employee-employer relationship allowed for one dimension of interaction, our corporate alum relationship had multiple dimensions of interaction and value.
- Former employees provide invaluable perspective. They have critical knowledge about your business—and you—that practically guarantees they’ll always be beneficial. With the knowledge of your organization’s vision in hand, they can provide an incredible external perspective that is sometimes lost within the confines of an inward-facing company. They can make introductions to a whole new set of clients. They can point you toward competitor information they’re receiving now that they’re on the outside. In short, their paycheck may not be determined by your vision anymore, but as part of your network they will continue to do things that make your vision a reality.
- Monogamy in corporate America is dead. We now live in an era where we’re no longer committed to a single corporate entity for years. Rather, it’s common—and even expected—that people will change jobs and switch careers. But beyond transitions, it’s expected that employees will take part in extracurricular business activities such as joining associations or taking part in Meetups or Hackathons. It’s accepted that an executive may take time to advise other companies or join a board, roles that only increase their knowledge and value. Star employees may collaborate with friends and rivals at other companies on community building parties or events, such as Ruby Riots or 1,000 pirates or even Tech Proms. It’s not just that you’re connected by six-degrees (or less), but rather that each connection is likely another potential collaboration and learning opportunity.
Now, more than ever, departing employees should be treated with care and respect. When they leave, bosses should thank them for their time and their contributions. In fact, a company’s relationship with corporate alums should be fostered, beginning at the moment that you decide to stop working together. It doesn’t matter who makes that decision. If handled appropriately, relationships with former employees can be a source of immense, incredible benefits for both parties. (To Kristen B.: Early at BzzAgent, you helped us build a fantastic brand and I don’t know if I told you that enough. Let me tell you that again!)
Some very smart companies figured out the value of maintaining connections to former employees long ago. Open Market—one of Boston’s high flyers in the late ‘90s—has an alumni group listserv where people seek advice, share job openings, and create new relationships. Procter & Gamble famously hosts a big splashy event for their alumni every year—and you can’t get in unless you worked at a certain level at P&G, which makes it all that more exclusive and special. IBM, too, is known to go to lengths to make sure its former employees remain fans.
It’s even possible to maintain good relationships with employees you have to let go. A few years ago, due to an evolving business model and economic depression, we had to do a round of layoffs at BzzAgent. We let go of two fabulous employees—Aaron C. and David E.—who we then offered workspace in our office for them to take on their next career move. Another former employee, Rob T., decided he wanted to leave BzzAgent to start his own company. He now runs ProctorCam, a company that monitors online test taking, with a dozen employees inside our offices. Together, we all now “cohabitate” and have generated infinite points of value through hallway dialogue and the good-feelings from current employees understanding how we support our own.
Just a few months ago, another key BzzAgent employee gave notice. But this time—with the historical knowledge in hand of nearly 300 employees coming and going—it was different. First, I congratulated him on what would likely be an exciting career move and expressed how much I appreciated everything he did for us. We then worked together to craft a really solid transition plan, including to whom, and when we would announce his departure. And in the time between his notice and his exit, we didn’t ostracize him—rather, we worked in unison to achieve the goals we’d laid out together. Ultimately, we threw him a party and we bought him a bottle of Vueve Clicquot to celebrate our appreciation for the value he provided us. By the time he left, our relationship may have been stronger than any time during our previous three years working together.
So to Dave D.: thanks for everything you did for BzzAgent as our president for three years. I look forward to working alongside you again in some endeavor sometime, somewhere—and let’s share a pint of Brown’s Ale together at our upcoming BzzAgent alumni party.