columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

My part-time employee called me to notify me that she has decided that she is going to be leaving because she has decided that she needs a full-time job with benefits. This is not an option in my small business, so I can understand her position. However, she also said that she is not giving her "official resignation" but that she wanted to let me know ASAP so that I would have a heads-up. She is searching for full-time employment, but when she will leave is unpredictable.

My question is how to best handle the situation for my business moving forward. I am currently training her on several aspects of her job, which feels somewhat pointless now that I know she is leaving. Should I post the position and start recruiting candidates to replace her? If I find someone, what if I want them to start before she gives her "official resignation"? Would that be considering firing her? I don't want to put her out of a job prematurely, but I also risk having a gap in her position if I don't start looking.

Green responds:

First, keep in mind that she did you a favor by letting you know ahead of time what her plans are--this is a good thing.

Second, keep in mind that other employees will be watching to see how you handle this, and may choose how much notice they themselves give based on how you handle this with her. Treat her well, and other people might give you generous notice too. But push her out earlier than she wanted to leave, and others may assume that they should never give more than two weeks.

Third, realize that if she hadn't given you a heads-up and instead just gave you a standard two weeks' notice, you would probably have a gap in coverage for the position. That means that you shouldn't proceed as if you absolutely must avoid a gap at all costs now; the only reason you even have a chance to avoid the gap is because she gave you an early heads-up.

That said, you're right that you need to be able to plan. I'd sit down with her and say this: "I really appreciate you being candid with me about this. This obviously has implications for us, and I want to talk to you about what makes sense as far as planning on my side. Do you have a sense of your timeline? Once I start hiring a replacement for you, it will probably take about (X amount of time) to hire someone. Is there a way for us to try to get our timelines to line up, or for me at least to not be starting that search prematurely?

You can also say: "If you were definitely going to be here X months, I'd want to keep training you on Y. If you're going to leave sooner, though, then it probably doesn't make sense to keep doing that. What do you think is most likely?"

Of course, she probably won't be able to answer these questions with pinpoint accuracy, but that's not what you're going for here. You're just trying to get a better sense of what she's thinking her timeline will be. Basically, you just want to have an open, honest conversation with her so that you come out of it aligned with what's in her head, and so that she continues to keep you in the loop as her plans become more specific. (And of course, make sure that she understands that you're still counting on her to give you two weeks' notice once she has an actual date in mind. Notice can't be "I'm going to leave at some point in the future but don't know when" followed by "OK, it's going to be tomorrow.")

This part is important: In doing this, you should factor in how strong of an employee she is. The better she is, the more flexibility you should give her, up to whatever point is realistic for the role. If she's fantastic at her job, you might say, "I appreciate you telling me. I want to keep you as long as we can, so just keep me in the loop as your plans proceed and you get closer to knowing what your end-date might be." On the other end of that spectrum, if she's someone you're not sad to lose, it's not unreasonable to say, "I appreciate you telling me. So that I can plan on my side, let's pick a rough point in the future for when I'll plan to have your replacement hired. Would X weeks from now make sense?"

(As for how long X should be: For someone mediocre, X might be eight weeks. For someone you were thinking of firing before this happened, it might be four weeks. I wouldn't normally recommend keeping someone around for a month when they're bad enough to fire, but this is about taking advantage of the fact that now you don't have to fire her, and that's better for everyone involved...assuming that there's no outright damage being caused by keeping her on, of course.)

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