A reader asks:
An employee's resignation has changed my opinion of her dramatically and I'm not sure if I'm being unfair. Can you help me recalibrate my instincts?
An employee on my team, "Ariel," was originally hired for a different team, working under "Ursula." Because of Ursula's micromanagement -- complaints everyone else working under her shared -- Ariel resigned. Shortly thereafter, Ursula left. At that point, we rehired Ariel for a vacant spot on my team.
Ariel returned about three months ago. Upon returning, she received a significant raise from her previous salary, while many people who had never left the company received no annual raise this year.
Last week, Ariel submitted her resignation, giving slightly less than two weeks' notice. She says she received an opportunity she couldn't turn down, with a huge raise and a chance to build and lead a team. She hadn't given me any indication she was unhappy.
If you don't count the two months she was gone between resignation and rehire, Ariel worked here for a year before leaving. If you only count from the rehire, she job-hopped after three months, including two vacations (travel planned before she was rehired) and a sick leave lasting the better part of two weeks. She is also leaving less than a month before the biggest trade show of the year for our industry and was spearheading the planning and execution for this show. We are a very small team and will have to spend a lot of extra money on professional production help for the trade show because of her departure.
I want to be happy for Ariel's great new opportunity -- an opportunity that I'm sure her work here helped her prepare for. She really does great work and deserves to advance and grow. But isn't it awfully unprofessional to accept an offer -- with a large raise -- and leave not even a full quarter later, leaving your team in the lurch? Should it affect my opinion of her if I'm ever asked for a reference for her? Do you think I made a mistake supporting the rehire of someone who resigned previously at all?
Generally, I tell people in Ariel's shoes that they can/should go ahead and do what's best for them, but they need to know that they might be burning a bridge in the process, and they need to be OK with that consequence.
You're that bridge.
In other words, it's understandable that Ariel would act in her own interests, especially when there's a huge raise and increase in responsibilities with the new job.
And it's also understandable that you'd feel like Ariel flaked out on you and left you hanging, and that you wouldn't hire her again in the future or do more favors for her. That's the burned bridge.
She might have made the absolutely right call for herself, but it's the kind of thing where I would tell Ariel (if she were the one writing to me), "Realize that this really sucks for them, and they're understandably not going to be happy with you."
However, I wouldn't get hung up on the fact that she hadn't given any indication that she was unhappy. It's possible that she was unhappy and was job searching so soon after starting -- but it's also possible that this was something that had been set in motion before she came back to work for you, or that it otherwise fell in her lap in a way she couldn't have anticipated when she accepted your offer.
I also wouldn't get too hung up on the fact that it's a month before the trade show and the costs of the extra production help you'll have to hire. That sort of thing happens when people leave, and it could have happened even if she'd been there for years. It makes the situation extra difficult, so it's easy to lump it all into "ways Ariel has wronged us," but that's more of an "eh, stuff happens." (Although I can see why it makes her actions feel extra cavalier to you.)
Now, as for whether you made a mistake here ... it's hard to say without having more information. Was Ariel a stellar employee during the year she was there in her first stint? Did her strengths warrant the significant raise you gave her to return? Did she give you the sense that she was enthusiastic about returning and committed to staying for at least a few years? If the answers to all those questions are yes, then I don't see that you made a mistake. But if the answers aren't unqualified yeses, then, yeah, there's probably room for figuring out what you'd want to do differently next time. That doesn't mean "never hire back former employees." It means things like: Don't take people back just because they're former employees; really reflect on their talents and likely commitment level; and if you're using significant raises to attract people back, make sure they're warranted within your overall salary structure and justified by the person's work. Sometimes people get so glad they're hiring an already known quantity that they forget to assess things that way.
And about future references, when it comes to talking about Ariel's work, you should give her the same reference you would have given before this. It's fair game to say, "Unfortunately when she came back to us the second time, she left after three months for a different job, so most of what I can tell you is from her first stint with us." But only if you're saying that not as a criticism but as factual context for the rest of the reference.
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