The Inevitable Departures

Apr 25, 2005

Every A/E and environmental firm experiences those inevitable departures of key employees. After the notice is turned in and the hand-wringing, self-flagellation, and/or angry statements come out from management, the next question is, “Now what?” Now, what should the firm do to recover from this blow to their capacity (and, maybe even more critical, psyche)? The answer to this question, like so many others, is the same: Be calm! No matter how much of a setback the loss of this key individual may appear at first, you have to remind yourself that you were probably in business before this person joined you, and you will be in business after they leave. No one is irreplaceable! No one— not even the founders. You should also remind yourself that if someone isn’t happy working in your company, both you AND they will be better served by them leaving. I know that may be hard to believe— especially if you are caught off-guard and don’t have a replacement lined up— but it is. Unhappy people are a cancer in the gut of the company, especially unhappy people in management or leadership posts. They will corrupt others’ thinking, even if it’s not their intention to do so. Don’t let the person hang around too long. Let’s all save face and transition everything that needs transitioning, but, most of the time, that doesn’t really take two weeks. Remember that lame ducks don’t tend to be very productive— even worse, they can hurt the morale of the other people. Get ‘em out of there ASAP. But be smart about it. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. Don’t make yourself look like you aren’t sensitive either, by rushing someone who is very popular with the people in your firm out the door TOO soon without a proper send-off. Take control of the communications, both inside and outside of the firm. Don’t let the person who is leaving send out just anything they want to clients of the firm. You need to decide what message is going out, not the person who quit! I have seen letters going out from the company the person is leaving, telling clients all about the employee’s new company and role. This is ridiculous in most every case, because it can only harm the firm the person is leaving behind. Ditto for the inside e-mails from those leaving. I once had a guy quit who sent out an e-mail to everyone as his last act— he was advertising his cool new job to all of our employees. It made me mad, and I sent a follow-up to all staff that made me look like an ogre. With the person involved, we should have anticipated this guy’s last act and pulled the plug on his e-mail account sooner! Get on with finding their replacement immediately! Time is of the essence. The sooner you can get someone else into the job of the person who quit, the better off you will appear (and actually BE!). It makes them look like they were easy to replace. And if you promoted someone from within, all the better. This could turn a negative event into a positive one (isn’t there some ancient Chinese proverb for that?) if you pick the right person. It shows everyone you promote from within. It gives that person a new and better job. And, it says to clients and others outside the firm that it’s business as usual in your company. My last words of advice on this subject are to anticipate these events. It’s always surprising how many firms are caught completely off-guard when that key guy or girl quits. Expect it. Have a succession plan in place. Know who will go where or how you will restructure if and when it happens. If the writing on the wall is crystal-clear (i.e., you hear firsthand that the person is actively interviewing), you may be best served to end the relationship on your terms, not theirs. Don’t be hasty with these kinds of decisions, but remember that, in this and all other matters, your role as an owner is to protect the interests of the organization as a whole. If you approach your decision-making from this point of view, you will usually do the right thing. Originally published 4/25/2005

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