Employee departures are often stressful. Nobody likes being left behind--particularly by a good worker--and having to let someone go is often worse. The emotional impact of these events is so strong that in many cases a powerful psychological phenomenon called cognitive dissonance sets in, getting in the way of positive outcomes for either party.

When an employee suddenly announces he is leaving, managers can react as if they are being abandoned. For a variety of reasons, they often make the departure about themselves rather than the employee and can lash out. Years of good work and relationship-building can be lost in an instant.

Recognizing Cognitive Dissonance

Managers who have to fire employees they like because of poor performance can behave even more strangely. They might exaggerate the employee's faults, avoid contact and generally make the person appear worthy of contempt. They might even try to persuade everyone that the company is better off without that guy.

It's a little bit crazy, but what's happening in both these cases is that the boss is dissociating herself from the employee to feel better about her own abilities or decision-making. Basically, she's having trouble reconciling two disparate ideas. How can I be a good boss if this person wants to leave? Or, how can this worker be such a good person and yet can't do the job?

Holding conflicting views together in the mind is what creates the psychological discomfort known as cognitive dissonance--and the outcomes for business are not good. Managers end up treating people poorly, unnecessarily sending forth a group of detractors into the world. That kind of bad karma can come back to haunt you.

To make matters worse, most companies have no structure in place for constructive departures. Instead, employers cling to the belief that if they create a great company culture, no one will ever leave.

Not only is that false, it sets everyone up for disappointment.

The Changing Landscape of Employment Lifecycles

The truth is, people come, and jobs go. It's inevitable. Even at companies on Glassdoor's Best Places to Work list--which includes Google, Facebook and Airbnb--the average employee only remains on the job for 24 to 32 months. Millennials in particular are open to changing jobs, with 60 percent of those born between 1980 and 1996 willing to jump ship more or less at any moment, according to Gallup.

Rather than address the fact that the current system is broken, however, people simply accept the idea that the two-weeks'-notice paradigm is how businesses operate.

Employees don't talk about their growing discontent. They do their job-hunting in secret and give two weeks' notice when they are ready to leave. Similarly, employers aren't upfront about poor performance; they wait until things get to a breaking point and then let the person go with just a few weeks' severance.

The result is that departures come as a total shock to the system--and shocks trigger defense mechanisms. Those left behind scramble to fill the hole, and bad feelings emerge on both sides. Yet, both situations can be avoided with a lot more communication and transparency. 

Embracing a Mindful Transition

Companies and managers that learn to embrace change certainly stand to benefit. Life is long, and business connections can tie many disparate organizations and people together over the course of a career.

In fact, a 2016 Harvard Business Review study of employee resignations found that "employees who felt that they had been treated well by their organization or their boss were more likely to go the extra mile when they quit."

According to Dr. Anthony C. Koltz, Associate Professor at Oregon State University and coauthor of the above HBR study, "Resignations are confusing and stressful for employees, and organizational leaders compound this unpleasantness when they fail to acknowledge that positive transitions out of the organization are possible, and even encouraged".

That's why McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, provides resources to help people transition out when they want to leave. Managers there realize that departing employees often go on to work for companies who might later hire McKinsey. So, the firm sets out to create an alumni association that is a positive force.

Similarly, at Accelerations Partners, we have instituted a Mindful Transition program to help employees take their next career steps in a way that's smooth and easy for both them and our company, avoiding the traditional two-week paradigm. The core of the program is creating a safe environment that fosters open conversations, eliminates surprises and promotes respect. We will even help our employees find new jobs elsewhere.

We've found this strategy can turn potential detractors into promoters. Rather than leaving disgruntled and bitter, your ex-employees might say, "I wanted to do something different, but my time at that company was great. Even when I was transitioning out, they were incredibly encouraging. I couldn't recommend them more highly."

Think about how much better it would be if company leaders recognized that the employer/employee relationship is changing and evolved their thinking.

That's not crazy at all.

Published on: Jul 12, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.