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Running a business

How to Deal with a Key Employee or Partner Quitting Unexpectedly

Have you ever dealt with this shock? One of your key employees — maybe even your business partner — comes in to your office and closes the door. She has something to tell you. She’s leaving the company. You didn’t see it coming. You’re in shock.

What do you do when (not if) this happens? Chances are, your first response is "Panic!" but that response doesn’t get you very far. How do you respond in the moment? How do you inform the rest of your company (and make sure they don’t head out the door as well)? How do you go forward?

While each circumstance is unique — maybe your key employee got a better offer, perhaps there’s some bad blood in the office, or she could be retiring early — there are some key steps to responding that apply in every case.

Establish a Protocol in Advance

Because it’s inevitable that you lose employees you wish you could keep — even partners — you should have a plan in place ahead of time on how to handle the various aspects of the situation. One element of that plan should be a required exit interview. Use that time with your departing employee to explore what’s behind the decision. If you discover there are problems with other employees, or even harassment, involved, take the appropriate steps to deal with those problems. Maybe your key employee is leaving because of a personal or family crisis. In this case, stress that the door is always open for her return, and suggest a hiatus or leave of absence instead of resignation. Keep an eye open for a resignation that’s actually a political move to get a raise or promotion, and consider in advance of the exit interview how you want to respond. If your employee is leaving to join a competitor, you may feel less nervous if you put a non-disclosure agreement in place when the employee originally joined your company, so add that to your hiring protocol if needed.

Your HR department should have a protocol in place as well. If your key employee is leaving for a competitor, you probably want to ask her to return her employee ID and keys, block her from your electronic files, and escort her out of the office. In more benign circumstances, you may want to negotiate a changeover period.

Take the High Road

If you haven’t had any hints that your key employee or partner is about to quit, you may find yourself tempted to lash out with accusations or express the extent of your emotions. Don’t do it. Take a deep breath, and keep things warm. In today’s marketplace, people move from position to position and from company to company frequently, and maintaining good relationships for the long term is far more important than any single job.

If the departure is hostile, of course you need to protect the company, your physical and intellectual property, and your employees. Take steps to do so, if necessary, and call your lawyer right away. If there’s an option for an amicable separation, don’t do anything to turn it hostile. Instead, express appreciation for your former employee’s or partner’s contributions to your business, and make it clear you’re willing to listen to any complaints. Urge everyone involved to take the high road. Ask for collaboration in the transition if appropriate. Your former employee’s involvement in handing over her position to someone else can send a valuable message to everyone in the company.

Establish Closure

If you’re shocked by the unexpected departure of your key employee or partner, you can bet that the rest of the company will be as well. Don’t try to hide the news; that’s how rumours start, and before you know, the word is everywhere that a scandal occurred and the company is going under. Agree with your departing employee and with all the key players at the top of your structure on what to say, and stick to the agreed-upon language. Communicate the news quickly and honestly, holding one-on-one meetings if necessary. In addition, communicate the plan for positive change as soon as it’s solidified.

Acknowledge that there’s an emotional component to the loss of a key employee, and validate the feelings of people who are shocked, upset, sorrowful, or just plain nervous. If it’s appropriate, consider throwing a goodbye party or event to give your former employee a proper sendoff.

Look to the Future

You need to put a plan into action quickly to prevent panic on the part of your employees or investors. If you’ve already established protocols for handling this type of situation, you’re way ahead of the game here. Decide whether you want to promote from within, even on an interim basis. If your key employee is parting on good terms, seek her help in assessing a possible replacement and even training the new person. However, also use this time to assess what your needs are as your company evolves into its new shape. Perhaps the role to be filled is going to evolve a bit once your key employee or partner is not the one filling it. While you want to move quickly, especially where handling emotions and public relations are concerned, you also want to make decisions that are right for the future of your enterprise.

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