Never Say Never – When a Key Employee Leaves

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Tsunami Zone by Coco and Jo, Flikr

When a key employee decides it’s time to pursue different interests and ambitions, it generates ripples in an organization. If that person takes a lot of organizational knowledge out the door, those ripples can morph into a tsunami.

As leaders, we can do everything possible to keep our best talent—provide onsite fitness centersunlimited vacation, a clear path for growth, insightful leadership and more—and some people will still choose to leave to achieve their personal goals. Rather than railing against an immutable reality, (employee turnover is expected to increase to 23.4% over the next few years, new entrants to the workforce assume they will move around and the boomer exodus has started), employers would be better served by reframing their perspective on employee turnover and refining the relationships they have with their A-team.

Authors Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh outline one possible model for this new kind of relationship in their book, The Alliance: Managing talent in the networked age. They propose an alliance between employer and employee, whereby the employee provides value to the organization for period of time in return for compensation and opportunities for growth and development. Much like a marriage where both parties stay as long as the relationship is mutually beneficial, such an alliance acknowledges the fact that:

 “Permission [to leave] is not yours to give or to withhold, and believing you have that power is simply a self-deception that leads to a dishonest relationship with your employees. Employees don’t need your permission to switch companies, and if you try to assert that right, they’ll simply make their move behind your back.”

When this kind of relationship exists, key employees don’t sneak out the back door. Instead, they let you know about their plans well in advance, giving you the opportunity to document organizational knowledge, train their replacements and wrap up critical tasks. These employees are also a lot more likely to remain accessible in future when unexpected issues crop up and their insight would be helpful.

Boomerangs by Canned Muffins, Flickr

The most important reason for cultivating a different kind of relationship with valued employees is to keep the conversation going and the door open. Boomerang hires are a growing phenomenon and, in tight talent markets, often prove to be faster, more productive hires. According to Dr John Sullivan, HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley, there are many reasons to hire corporate alumni, including the following[1]:  

  • Fast hire. Boomerangs offer an opportunity to acquire a top person quickly (the search and the assessment take little time).
  • Known skills. Because they are former employees with years of performance appraisals, you know in advance what skills and competencies you are obtaining.
  • Up to speed quickly. Because they know the organization and its culture, they are likely to get up to speed faster than traditional new hires who have to learn an entirely new set of politics, culture, and processes.
  • Low failure rate. They have a lower chance of failing because they have already adapted to the culture and you already know their performance capabilities and their ability to produce results (especially if they quit your firm recently).
  • Browngrassers. You might find that after seeing the “color of the grass” on the other side that they are desirable because they will not likely leave again. The added benefit alluded to earlier is that they can help in the retention effort because they can tell stories to others about life on the outside.
  • Competitive intelligence. They can provide competitive intelligence, new ideas, and a fresh perspective from their previous firms.
  • A chain reaction. They often bring back other alumni with them when they come, especially after the message spreads that you are welcoming back those who left.
  • Building community. Alumni programs help build a sense of a long-term community among employees because even when you leave, employees know they can maintain a relationship with the firm.
  • PR value. A high return rate might improve image and secure good PR in the industry and community.

No matter how disappointed you may be at the loss of a top performer, your best option for minimizing the ripples of change when a key employee leaves is to leave the door ajar, keep the lines of communication open, and never (ever) say never.


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