We've all been there. Things at the office are going smoothly. You have an effective team in place. There is harmony and effective collaboration. Your team is going above and beyond, and you're on track to have a banner year. And then a star employee comes into your office, closes the door, and utters that dreaded phrase: "There's something I need to talk to you about."

Most leaders understand the importance of being thoughtful and generous about employee departures. But losing a key member of your team can be emotional and unsettling, and reacting thoughtfully is sometimes easier said than done. Not only do you lose capacity when someone leaves, but you are likely losing a lot of institutional knowledge that they have acquired during their time with you. And departures run the risk of causing morale issues on teams that become stretched or who are simply sad to lose a cherished team member.

By handling a surprise resignation the right way, your leadership can mitigate these potential problems and set a powerful example for your team. When my clients are faced with that dreaded conversation, I tell them to focus on six practical steps:

  1. Control your reaction. Your first reaction to the news sets the tone for that person's final weeks within your organization. If you respond with anger or accusation, your employee will not only leave on an unhappy note, but will also be less likely to make effortful contributions during the final stage with you. Apply some empathy--the person sitting across from you is probably very nervous to share this news. Your receptiveness and understanding are critical to keeping the dialogue open. Advanced-level leadership means you can be proud of them for their accomplishments, and happy that they are pursuing their goals.
  2. Listen--and really try to understand--their reasons for leaving. If they're choosing to leave for a more desirable compensation package, you may ask yourself whether your company's value proposition is competitive. If the decision is driven by a growth opportunity, examine whether you're neglecting to provide growth opportunities within your organization--or are simply unable to do so. If your employee is just unhappy, create a safe environment, whether a candid conversation or a formal exit interview, for sharing specific feedback. Understanding employee departures is a crucial step toward making your company a great place to work.
  3. Be sensitive, be proactive, and be inclusive. Collaborate with your employee to determine how the news is shared with the rest of the team, and with clients if appropriate. Announce the departure before the person has left, not after, and make sure your messaging shows support, so that your note doesn't imply that the person is leaving on bad terms. Discuss how you'll share the news with clients and other business contacts, and try to agree on language that everyone's comfortable with. You might want to involve the departing employee in conversations about hiring for a replacement--after all, he or she knows the technical requirements of the job best.
  4. Get organized. Review departure procedures well in advance of the employee's last day. Make sure that the employee knows what's expected of him or her in the final days before departure regarding the handoff of files, contacts, and assets like computers and cell phones. Keep a checklist of what needs to be done to avoid awkward last-minute conversations like turning in office keys, or getting off the company's cell phone plan. Do your best to eliminate any need to reach out for information or assets once they've moved on to their next job. Your respectful organization around their departure will likely make them more proactive and organized in how they leave their work behind.
  5. Honor their successes. Take time to celebrate your employee's contributions to your business, but remember that one-size-fits-one. While one person might appreciate a farewell party, another might be more comfortable with a quieter send-off, or a casual team lunch. Especially if your employee had long tenure within your company, the rest of the team may enjoy having the opportunity to celebrate and show their support.
  6. Don't forget to wish your former employee well as he or she begins the next chapter. Send a note to his or her new office, and stay in touch. You never know if your paths might align again in the future, or who they might refer to work at your company!

Organization and caring are keys to making departures as clean and painless as possible. Remember that making your goodbyes as warm as your welcomes will only strengthen your employees' perception of you as a great leader.