The average tenure in the software industry is short--somewhere around 18 months. Ours is higher. Just about half the 56 people at Basecamp have been with us at least five years, and 12 have been with us for more than seven.
But people still leave. Some want to try other things at other companies, or the fit isn't right, so we have to let them go. It's the natural cycle of business.
What's never been natural at companies, though, is how these departures are handled. So at Basecamp we've created a ritual for when someone leaves: We tell everyone in the company why. Not just that person's team, or his or her immediate co-workers. The entire staff gets the memo.
At many companies, when people walk out the door for the last time, their name is never spoken again. "Hey, what happened to Larry?" "Oh, Larry? We don't talk about Larry anymore." The departure remains a mystery. The name becomes unspeakable.
One thing we know about human nature is that when there's a mystery, people will solve it themselves: They make up the ending, and it's almost always worse than reality. And that's the problem--if you don't tell people why, they'll make up why. And the wrong why is almost always destructive.
Information vacuums fill with rumors, and rumors lead to anxiety. Was Larry laid off? Are more cuts coming? Am I next? Did Larry have any warning? Or was he just shown the door 10 minutes before the end of the day on Friday? It's not a healthy scene.
So at Basecamp, when someone leaves--voluntarily or not--we give that person the option of saying goodbye on his or her own terms by sending a message to everyone in the company. It can include anything this person wants it to, and, as long as there are no personal attacks or slights, we approve the posting. Employees often reply with best wishes, while some share pictures and memories.
Then, a few days after this person's departure, his or her team manager writes a follow-up post that's also sent out to the whole company. This note provides details that were missing from the personal goodbye. We lay out the reason someone left, or why this person was asked to leave, to ensure there are no big questions hanging over everyone's head. If someone is let go for conduct (not related to job performance), we say as much, acknowledging that we can't divulge details. It's important to be clear and thorough and honest.
This follow-up post is also a place where people can ask for clarification or share their point of view. It's a cathartic moment designed to put everything on the table and clear the air of concerns anyone might have about why a onetime co-worker is no longer part of the company.
For example, we recently had to let someone go who was a great, highly skilled person but ultimately didn't fit the role he was hired for. We thought he could eventually adapt to the position, and that the position could adapt to him, but time proved the gap was too great. In our memo to the staff, we explained this, and we also let them know we were going to do everything we could to help him find another job.
We do our best to treat these moments with the utmost dignity and respect. Leaving a job without another one to transition into, or being let go without a clue as to what you're going to do next, is obviously a challenging situation for most people. But when someone leaves, that affects everyone across the company. The fallout isn't isolated. Trust is shaken, and suddenly a happy workforce can become a paranoid one.
The next time you're dealing with a fraught departure, don't pretend it never happened. Instead, take a deep breath, embrace the uncomfortable, and tell everyone why.