The Departed

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It hurts a little when employees move on.

How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a resigning employee.

Some bosses hate being surprised, but I think it's worse to see it coming. Danielle seems distracted. She's taken a few mornings off with feeble explanations. She and her close office friends are constantly conversing behind closed doors. Last week you offered her a challenging assignment with a distant deadline and she hesitated, as though uncomfortable about committing. She might as well be wearing a nametag: Hello: I'm History.

Depending on Danielle's status in the business the effect of her departure will vary. But even if you're pleased to see the back of her, there's usually a twinge of regret when someone resigns. Maybe you can do better, sure. But maybe you failed her in some way. When it's a valued employee leaving--even for an opportunity you can't provide--resentment naturally mixes with regret. Company leaders want to be bigger and better things, not mere steppingstones to them.

The worst moment isn't when she breaks the news but when she walks out of your office. You imagine her making the rounds of the staff, sharing her plans with those still in the dark. They congratulate her and then start talking about the things she'll miss and the things she won't. You can almost hear the words "sorry to see you go" followed jokingly--or not--by "please, can you please take me with you?" Later, employees treat you with unusual delicacy, as befits a person who has just been dumped.

Or not. If you've seen enough people come and go resignations may lose their emotional punch. Still, a lame duck colleague subtly changes the office atmosphere. From the moment word gets out until the day she exits stage left, a valedictory feeling hangs in the air. The staff sits in a planning meeting and someone remarks, "Lucky Danielle--she doesn't have to worry about this." It's meant to be funny, but the effect is melancholy. Personal items start disappearing from her office; prints and calendars come down from her walls. Like a graduating student dispensing dorm-room effects to junior roomies, she offers one colleague her Aeron chair, another her brass desk lamp.

The farewell party is awash in ambivalent messages. We celebrate your good luck in leaving us. We wish you success advancing the fortunes of others. Please accept this monogrammed briefcase/ hilarious novelty mug/framed photo of the gang at McGinty's Pub as a memento of what we once meant to you. Come back and visit us. We know you won't.

Yet the departed are never really gone: They linger as markers in institutional memory. Your bond with long-tenured staff is deepened by shared recollections of former colleagues. For later hires, the great ones hover like ghosts, indications of the company's rich past. And who knows--Danielle can still play a role by recommending you to prospective clients or sending talented job candidates your way.

Of course, she'll only do that if you were a great boss. Therein lies the lesson: Make employees' resignations as hard for them as they are for you.

Last updated: Aug 6, 2007

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor at Large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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