Spine-Chilling Terminations: How to Handle Difficult Employee Exits

Eric Mochnacz
October 11, 2023

One of the scariest things an employer will face is an employee exit.  No bones about it, an unplanned resignation or a planned termination causes disruption to your business.  Regardless of the circumstances, you don’t want to find yourself buried under the impact of an employee’s departure.  There are things business owners can do to manage employee exits so your company’s reputation doesn’t end up six feet under.  And you don’t need to light the black flame candle to summon the Sanderson Sisters and their book for answers – just read on!

What is the Employee Exit Process?

Traditionally, employees exit an organization in two ways –  they choose to resign or the company decides to terminate the employment relationship.  Having a defined process for both eventualities is critical to business continuity.  It truly is spine-chilling for all involved when an employee leaves and everyone is left scrambling with no idea what to do.  Although it’s frightening to think about employees leaving, it’s even more frightening when you bungle their off-boarding.  

When an employee leaves, it’s a change that will have an impact on your business.  The business has a responsibility to manage and communicate the change effectively with stakeholders to guarantee business continuity, confidence in your business, and protection of company assets.  When developing your exit process,  integrate these key considerations into your process documents and checklists.  

An employee resignation gives you a defined time period (usually 2 weeks) to facilitate a smooth transition.  This is the time when you engage in a knowledge transfer with the individuals who will be taking on the departing employee’s work.  Plan how you are going to communicate the departure to the person’s internal and external partners and stakeholders.  Finally, determine how you will turn off all accounts and receive any company property from the employee in advance of their last day to support data and access security.  Often employers will dismiss someone immediately and agree to pay out their two weeks in consideration – but the employer is missing out on the opportunity for a smooth transition.  And is it appropriate to abruptly end someone’s employment because they are pursuing another opportunity?  Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.  Look at an employee resignation – and the fact they are giving you two weeks’ notice (because the at-will employment relationship applies to both employee and employer) – as a chance to end the employment relationship on a positive, productive note.  

When an employee resigns, your preparation time is after the event.  When you are planning to terminate an employee, the preparation is in advance of the event.  

The Importance of Having a Well-Developed Employee Exit Process 

It can be spooky not having well-defined employee lifecycle processes, but not having a well-developed employee exit process should strike fear in the heart of every employer.  Especially since exits are the most fraught with risk.  If you mismanage an employee exit, it may not be trick-or-treaters knocking at your door, but an employment lawyer.  

Putting thought and effort into how you plan for employee exits, whether it be a resignation or termination, mitigates risk.  When your employee leaves, a defined exit process is a methodical, step-by-step approach to what you need to do to manage it successfully.  A defined exit process, regardless of circumstance,  aligns communications, ensures business continuity, and supports data and property security for your company.  We maintain the best way to manage an employee exit, which is one of the most challenging situations an employer will face, is through a thought-out, methodical approach and process.

Five Tips For Handling Difficult Employee Exits 

Although an employee exit is never a treat, you also don’t want any tricks.  When we provide our HR support services to our clients, we provide guidance on how to manage employee exits, including the most difficult ones.  We’ve summoned our top tips on best handling employee departures.  

Be Prepared 

Regardless of how amazing an employer you are, people will leave, whether it on their own volition or they are terminated.  So even if you aren’t dressing up as a Boy Scout this Halloween, you still need to be prepared.  Knowing that employees are always in the position to resign, build out a process and checklist for employee offboarding you can activate at a moment’s notice.  A thorough offboarding plan involves knowledge transfer, asset management, and data security.  

If you are facing an employee termination, you want a process document on properly handling the termination process and its impact on the business.  When we work with clients, we create a timeline and script for every termination notification.  We also anticipate the questions an impacted employee may ask and train the manager delivering the message on how to respond and navigate the challenging conversation.  Also, we always recommend during a termination, you work with a trusted employment lawyer to further mitigate risk and create your separation and general release agreement, a key component of most terminations.  Being prepared may take time, but it’s also key to ensuring the terminated employee is treated with dignity and respect during a difficult discussion, and that you are showing them respect by not winging it the day of.

Conduct an Exit Interview 

When an employee resigns, conducting an exit interview is a great tool for feedback on improving employee experience and business operations.  Develop questions that will get quality and usable feedback, rather than treating it as pro forma and filing the results away in a filing cabinet.  This is your opportunity to receive actionable feedback, so take advantage of it.  Don’t let an employee leave without garnering their honest observations and thoughts about the company and their experience.

Be Open and Honest in Your Communication 

Employee exits are the nature of the business.  You will always be in a position where an employee leaves.  How you handle it makes all the difference.  Open and honest communication through the separation process means there is a greater likelihood the departed employee will speak positively about their experience with your company.  Employees can sense if you’re hiding information from them, so lead with honesty, transparency, and integrity. 

Focus on Knowledge Transfer 

The goal of managing any employee exit is guaranteeing there isn’t a single point of failure.  So, when an employee resigns, your focus is on business continuity.  Priority number one is knowledge transfer between the departing employee and the person (or people) who are taking on their responsibilities.  Don’t treat the two-week notice period as a countdown, but rather as the rare opportunity to have someone share their wealth of knowledge with other people in the organization.  You valued their knowledge when they were an active member of the organization – their knowledge isn’t any less valuable just because they’re pursuing another opportunity.  Don’t waste the time you have with them, because once the employee is gone, they don’t have a responsibility to share their expertise with your company anymore.  

If the exit is a result of a termination, the employer has time to plan for business continuity and knowledge transfer.  Although you don’t want to share with employees that you’re terminating their colleague, as part of your due diligence, identify who can step in and meet the responsibilities of the vacant position if needed.  This is another part of the communication plan to consider as you navigate employee exits, as someone’s departure will have an impact on their colleagues and their workload.  

Keep Your Team Informed 

Communication doesn’t stop at the termination discussion.  If your company undergoes a single termination or a larger reduction in force, an additional step is planning out your communications with the retained workforce.  The people who are still with the company deserve an update while still respecting the impacted employees’ privacy.  Whether it be individual phone calls or a company all hands, the company has a responsibility to effectively communicate exits and manage the flow of information.  Additionally, if your customers or clients are impacted by the exit, your plan to communicate with them is also a critical part of your communication strategy.  

An HR Consultant Can Help You Develop an Employee Exit Process 

Employee exits can be utterly frightening, but they don’t have to be.  Working with seasoned HR consultants to navigate through these challenging discussions is the best way to avoid spine-chilling outcomes.  You may feel creeped out contacting a team you’ve never worked with before, but I promise you, we aren’t scary.  If you need help navigating employee exits, reach out today…if you dare.  MWAH HA HA!

Photo Credit – Photo by Tapio Haaja on Unsplash

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