How to Handle a Good Employee Quitting

You want to retain good employees, not see them leave. But if it does happen, here’s some advice on how to best respond.

We often spend more time with our work family than our real family. I use the word “family” because we end up — often against our will — caring about these people. We don't always like them or understand them, but time breeds familiarity. 

So when someone hands in their notice or quits, it's hard not to have feelings because we care about family. And because change is hard. Don't get me wrong. Some employees quit and it's a fight to hide the relief. Other times, it's devastating.

The employees you like having in your family are hard to let go of. They work hard, complain little and are dependable. These people feel as rare as unicorns these days.

It is important in these moments to maintain composure and perspective. In other words, don't freak out. Here's what you should do:

Stay professional.

Remember it isn’t personal. They aren’t abandoning you. They aren't making some statement about your leadership skills. They aren't sinking your battleship. 

In fact, this isn't about you at all. It's about them. Their life. Their livelihood. Their family. Their dreams for their future. Respect the decision they have made. Smile, and let them know you care about their success.

Decide if you are going to let them work their notice.

As the manager, you have the option of deciding whether to refuse a quitting employee's notice. Whether they'll have to be paid for their time depends on local human resources laws.

If you need or want them to work their notice, that is fine too. Hold them accountable for finishing up any open quotes or wrapping up projects. This will keep them from mentally checking out.

Be open about ground rules for trust in the final days. Talk to them about your expectations to make a successful exit.

Talk to your team.

You can’t control when or how word gets out. Other employees may even know before you. Let it go.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't make an announcement. Personnel changes are a big disruption for employees. They might need reassurance that you are handling the situation. 

Lay positive groundwork for the future.

Remember that all eyes will be on you during this time. Employees will watch how you handle this in case their moment ever comes.

If you want future employees to give you notice, handle it well. Otherwise, they will decide not showing up for work is the best way to quit.

Be careful about bidding wars.

Be wary of the employee who claims money is the only deciding factor. If the pay is competitive, there is likely another reason. They aren't comfortable sharing what that reason is.

Often, an employee cites money as motivation because that is an easy answer. They may not want to hurt your feelings. If offering to match or beat a salary doesn't solve the problem, let them move on.

If the raise is because of a promotion, you have to consider if you can offer the same opportunity. Promotions are about more than money. They are about career paths, personal agency and responsibility. Pay bumps alone have a very short-term effect on employee happiness. If there are deeper issues going on like scheduling or benefits, those are going to come back to haunt you.

Know who to complain to.

We all need time to vent. Management is often a lonely business. If you are particularly upset or stressed about losing an employee, be careful about who you talk to.

Complaining should never go down the chain of command. It should only ever go up or over. If you are at the top, that means you need to look outward. A friend, spouse, family member or peer mentor is appropriate. Your subordinates are not. Assume anything you say to one subordinate you are saying to the whole organization.

Be prepared for more.

You know how they say bad things come in threes? Well, it’s true in employee affairs as well. When one employee leaves, it gets the others thinking about their potential opportunities. The grass starts to look greener outside of your backyard.

One employee leaving may cause a flurry of turnover. Again, take this in stride and roll with it. Getting upset and freaking out isn’t going to convince anyone to stay.

Have hope.

Keep in mind that new blood, talent, eyes and brains can be great for your utility. Admit it, no matter how good the employee was, you still have that one thing about them that drove you crazy. Remember that life will go on, and you will survive. 

Once you have calmed down, conduct an exit interview.

If you have never done exit interviews, start. One single interview will tell you a little bit, but the real value is in data over time. Start now and document.

There is no right or wrong way to do this, but the goal is to learn from someone who has very little to lose. These employees can afford a new kind of honesty.

Here are a few ideas to get you started: 

  • What concerns, opportunities or incidents prompted you to start looking for other employment?
  • If those primary issues disappeared would you still leave? 
  • Is there anything about this job you would take with you if you could?
  • What do you think our biggest opportunity for improvement is?
  • Would you recommend this job to a friend? Why or why not?

Finding out what you are doing right will help highlight benefits in future job listings. Finding out the bad gives you a chance to change. In our neck of the woods, the job market is very strong, and more opportunity leads to higher turnover. That's how economics works. So it’s vital that we pay close attention to what’s enticing for employees.

If you are lucky enough to have avoided this issue, at least you can mentally prepare. It will happen one day. No matter how good your management is, employees leaving — especially the good ones — is a tough leadership moment. But how you handle it will tell your team a lot about you and your organization.

One final thought: If you wish a departing employee would stay, make sure they know the door is open for them to come back. Sometimes we have to try on someone else’s shoes before we realize we prefer our steel-toe boots.

About the author: Anja Smith is managing partner for All Clear Plumbing in Greenville, South Carolina. She can be reached at


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