I’m constantly anxious that one of my employees will quit

A reader writes:

I manage a small team of six employees. While we’re a part of a larger company, we operate relatively independently and have the small business feel, which is to say that everyone wears many hats and works very hard. We pay generous salaries, overtime, on-call pay, and very nice year-end bonuses. I’d like to think I am good manager – I invest in my team’s growth, I’m available to them for questions, I communicate expectations clearly, and I offer genuine appreciation / praise for good work. When something goes wrong – as it always does at some point – I’m professional and fair, and have a constructive conversation about corrective actions.

All that said, I am constantly anxious that someone is going to leave. If they request a day off in the middle of the week, I think “sh*t, interviews.”

Everyone seems happy and I have no reason to think anyone is looking to leave. I check in regularly with the team to ensure everything is going well for them, but I can’t envision real honesty of “Actually, this sucks and I want out so I am looking for another job” if someone actually felt that way.

Note: I totally get that people leaving jobs for a whole host of reasons is a normal thing. I have ensured the staff is cross-trained so I am not reliant on any one person, but as everyone is a key person, the thought of someone leaving makes me nuts.

Any thoughts on how to control my crazy here?

I think you should embrace the idea that people will leave — not just reluctantly accept it, but actively embrace it.

Because people will leave! That’s part of the deal. You don’t get to keep them forever and that’s okay. They’ve presumably grown professionally while working for you, so at some point they’ll move on to the next thing that will help them grow even more. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

What, specifically, worries about when you think about people leaving? Are you worried about the logistics of covering their work until someone new is hired? Are you worried about the hassle of hiring? Are you worried that the next person won’t be as good, or will disrupt your current team dynamics? Are you worried that people leaving somehow reflects badly on you as a manager?

If your worry is logistics about coverage and the hassle of hiring: Yeah, that stuff is a pain. But it’s a normal part of doing business, and there’s no way out of it … just like lots of other annoying things about work that you probably don’t stay constantly anxious over, like expense reports or messes in the office microwave.

If your worry is that the next person won’t be as good: That’s possible. But there’s where having confidence in yourself as a manager comes in. If you know that you’ll be rigorous in hiring, train people well, give feedback along the way, and address if forthrightly if things aren’t working out, there may be some hassle there but it won’t ever be a disaster. And again, it’s a normal part of the job when you manage — sometimes people won’t be as good as you were hoping. It only becomes a real problem if you decline to do the work of managing it.

If your worry is that a new person will change your team dynamics: That’s possible too, but it’s not inherently a bad thing. Sometimes a long period where team dynamics don’t change can lead to stagnation and tunnel vision. And again, if the dynamics change in a way that aren’t ideal, have confidence in yourself to manage it.

But I suspect that your worry is that people leaving would reflect badly on you as a manager. Even if you don’t worry that other people will think that, at some level do you feel like if you were a good manager, your staff would all stay? And that if they leave, you have failed in keeping them?

If so, I would try to reframe this in your head to something like this: “I will do my best to hire and retain good employees, which includes ensuring they’re paid fairly and otherwise treating people well. It also includes doing my best to develop their skills and help them grow professionally, which means that I embrace the idea that on some point they will move on in order to keep progressing. And sometimes people will move on for reasons that have nothing to do with me — their interests change, or they’re moving, or they found an opportunity that was better for them, or they just have itchy feet. My job is not to keep everyone forever; my job is to manage well, retain my highest performers when I realistically can, and to respond with good grace when people decide something else makes more sense for them.”

Now, that doesn’t mean that you should just throw up your hands and say “Oh well! People leave, so I won’t try to keep them at all.” You should try to create an environment that good people want to stay in, and you especially should try to retain your high performers (which can mean explicit conversations with them about their plans and what would make them stay).

But no matter what you do, people will eventually leave. You are not all going to retire together. Assuming you keep managing for a while, you’re going to have lots of different staff members over the years. Plan to get great work from them for a few years (the exact amount of time will depends on norms in your field and the type of roles on your team), and then send them off into the world stronger employees than they started as. That’s the opposite of failure as a manager.

{ 121 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Katie the Fed

    I just lost my top performer on Friday. It’s going to hurt, but I’ve been building a strong team and they’ll rise to the occasion. They always do!

    Reply
    1. KarenT

      I lost my top performer in December. I was pretty worried, but I think me and the team are better for it. We all rose to the occasion as we didn’t have him to rely on anymore.

      Reply
  2. Mike C.

    Consider the model of treating former employees as “alumni”. Keep connections open, understand that they’re going to do good work while they’re here, they’ll do good work elsewhere later and maybe some will come back with additional skills to do even better work. Even if they never come back, those connections could be very useful for you and your business.

    Reply
    1. AdAgencyChick

      This is such a great way to think about it. (As is Alison’s entire post.)

      Your “alumni network” can even help YOU get your next job. Whenever I myself am hunting, one of the first things I do is hit up all of my former direct reports (as long as I know they’re happy where they are now) and see whether there are any openings where they’re working.

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    2. Bibliovore

      This. I applaud OP for creating a strong, professional, and supportive work environment. You are doing everything right. Sometimes growing and leaving is hard because of all the right reasons. My previous position is one that I miss on a weekly basis but I am able to translate fifteen years of positive experience to being the best manager I can be at my present position. My world is a small one and I welcome opportunities to collaborate with my former colleagues.

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    3. Jane Dough

      Yes! And people who are interested in their career development often maintain contacts with people of similar skill sets (through professional societies and so on), so if someone leaves on good terms, you might even be able to tap them for referrals to fill their position.

      Reply
    4. NW Mossy

      This is a great way for departing employees to think of themselves, too! It’s especially potent when someone moves on to another role at the same company – you now have a relationship that can help you and your former employee prosper.

      I’ve changed jobs 5 times in 8 years at my current company, and each time I’ve moved on, I continue to draw on those relationships that I formed previously. As I’m fond of saying, “I may not be able to do/answer that for you, but I probably know someone who can!”

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    5. OwnedByTheCat

      Yes!

      I’ve (as a normal human being) had several jobs. Leaving tends to go two ways:

      -My boss is infuriated and becomes nasty and disrespectful. I end up leaving those jobs feeling like I dodged a bullet and would never want to return nor refer someone to the organization.

      -My boss understand that people leave/move/grow and is positive about the change. Those are the organizations with whom I’ve stayed in touch, created networking relationships, been a reference, etc.

      I’m still close with several coworkers, including former bosses, and it’s an invaluable professional (and personal) network. It’s always a joy to be a job reference and a comfort to ask professional questions.

      Reply
      1. Paxton

        One of my previous jobs treated every single person who left as if they were a traitor. The recruiter struggles to find anyone because every single prevoois employee throws up red flags when our friends ask about working there.

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    6. anon24

      This is a great way of putting it! 2 years ago I helped manage a small business. I quit when I got married and moved 2 hours away. A few weeks ago I got a text message asking me if I could help them out and come back and work a day when the managers were all off! It was a weekend so I was able to without it interfering with my current job, but I honestly would have taken a vacation day if needed because of how well they treat their employees.

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    7. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      This is really wise, and it made me realize that this is how I feel about jobs that I liked with employers who were supportive. I’ve probably worked at a dozen or more jobs since high school, but there are only a few employers to whom I’m particularly loyal/supportive.

      One was a paid internship at the end of college—I was only there for a semester! But they have a formal “alumni” network that’s composed of former staff, including interns. That network is really active, has all sorts of regional meet-ups, makes travel funding available for people to pursue professional development, secures group registration rates for conferences that tend to be heavily attended by their alumni, etc. I still support them and feed good people their way, and it’s been 10+ years.

      tl;dr: Mike C. speaks truth!

      Reply
    8. Kara Zor-El

      This is so true. I’m actually a “boomerang employee” — I left a job on good terms and stayed in touch with my boss. When it was time to leave my next job, my ex-boss invited me back… and now I’m happily at my old company in a higher-level position.

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    9. Siberian

      This IS a great suggestion. I described a prima donna employee in a response below, and what I didn’t mention was that we stayed in touch, and over the years I hired him as a freelancer during periods when he was available, either after hours or because he was between jobs. Now he’s been full-time freelance for a while, and I’ve gone on to a university job, and I’ve hired him as a vendor. He’s actually just perfect as a vendor, and our relationship, which was getting strained when he worked for me, has really recovered. I have another employee who left after a year and we too stayed in touch. She just became a freelancer recently and I hired her too! Those two had overlapped when they were my employees so it’s like we have our old team together. :)

      Reply
  3. Liet-Kynes

    My feeling is that this is more reflective of your relationship with change, instability, uncertainty, and ambiguity in your professional life than it is about these particular employees on this particular team leaving.

    For me personally, this is one way my impostor syndrome crops up – I’m not a real manager and I don’t really know what the hell I’m doing, so I want everyone to stick around because at least I can fake it real well with this crew.

    Reply
    1. ThatGirl

      I agree and also think there might be some personal anxiety involved, which OP needs to learn to manage on her own. It may not rise to the level of clinical but she seems to realize that some of this is hers to deal with and not necessarily reflective of reality.

      Reply
      1. KellyK

        Absolutely. OP, it might be helpful to look at the situation and see if your level of anxiety is out of step with your actual situation. If it’s really hard to hire people in your field and geographic location, or your team is already overloaded, then it’s realistic to be concerned about people leaving. If you’ve got good contingency plans and you generally don’t have problems finding good people who want to work for your employer, that worry is less realistic.

        Once you have an idea which one it is, that tells you whether the thing to focus on managing is the situation, or your feelings about the situation. If it’s either a situation that you *can’t* fix (like a hiring freeze) or internal feelings being out of whack with the situation, then you’ll probably end up focusing more on the feelings than the situation. Making sure you’re getting enough food, rest, and exercise, doing things that you find relaxing, and all that other good self-care stuff can help. If there are problems with the situation that you can address, then that might be a good place to start.

        Sometimes these overlap. Making sure you have good contingency plans in place in case someone does leave (or is sick or injured for an extended period of time) is both practical and reassuring.

        Reply
    2. TootsNYC

      I agree. And that’s why Alison’s advice to embrace it is so powerful.

      The way to tackle it is to always be recruiting, even if only mentally. Put the recruiting network in a place. Become someone who serves as an informational interview. Etc.

      Reply
  4. Cambridge Comma

    OP, I think there are ways to create real honesty within a team. I’ve worked in some where people have been open about applying for other jobs and why. I’ve been able to tell my own bosses in two different workplaces that I am looking for a new job (most recently 18 months before I wanted to leave ; obviously I could only do that because of the high level of trustworthiness that my boss had created).
    Saying that, this may very well not be possible to achieve within the context of your organization. But you could consider whether it might be.
    I’ve read some interesting articles by Claire Lew recently on Medium on these kinds of questions.

    Reply
    1. OP Here

      I actually recently had that conversation with an employee I thought might be looking. He was making some mistakes, and I know taking them very hard, so I pulled him aside for a pep talk and a “is everything okay?” I told him everyone makes mistakes, I was very happy he was a part of the team, and if he needed anything to let me know. He’s new to our particular type of business, and it’s a hectic environment, which he’s had some trouble adjusting to. I mentioned that while I would love to keep the team as is indefinitely, I also want people to be happy, so if at any point, they’re not, we can have that conversation and plan a graceful exit / transition. He assured me he was fine, just felt bad about the mistakes, and was nervous it was making him look bad (i.e. that’s where his behavior change was rooted). Overall is made me feel a bit better, but the urge to shake his shoulders and say “DON’T LEAVE” was still there (kidding. … mostly). ;)

      Reply
      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        One thing this makes me think of — don’t get so focused on wanting to keep everyone that you’re not spotting it when someone actually should move on. That’s part of your job too — spotting when the makeup of your team does need to be changed.

        Reply
        1. OP Here

          For sure. I had that very candid conversation with someone in my last job, and while a difficult conversation (pre-firing?), it ended up working out better for everyone, and caused a great transition for everyone.

          Reply
  5. The Other Dawn

    “You might not worry that other people will think that, but at some level do you feel like if you were a good manager, your staff would all stay? And that if they leave, you have failed in keeping them?”

    I think this is a good point. I would say, in my experience, unless your department as a whole has a very high turnover in a short amount of time, I wouldn’t worry that you’re failing to keep them because you’re a bad manager.

    My former manager at my last job was a not-so-good manager . Projects and work in general, she was awesome. People? Hell no. Because of that she had over 100% turnover in the 10 months I was there. So, unless something like this is going on, or you see poor morale, etc. I wouldn’t worry it’s you.

    It sounds like what’s making you worry is just to whole “I have to start all over from scratch again” when someone leaves. Unfortunately, though, that’s just how it goes when you lose someone. Just make sure you’ve got cross-trained people, training and backup documentation in place, and you have a strong interviewing process–sounds like you do–and it shouldn’t be too painful. Yes, it will be in the short term, but eventually that person will be up to speed and things will go back to normal.

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  6. N

    I wish I had been able to read this post when I had my first managerial position. I, personally, believed that people leaving was a reflection of my own failings as a manager and I felt threatened that someone could have a better manager or job somewhere else…which is all ridiculous and unhealthy. I wish someone had pulled me aside and reminded me that it’s just a normal part of work life, as Alison says.

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  7. Siberian

    Alison has done such a good job in this response! The only thing I can add is that when I was self-employed and had just one employee, I too worried that he would quit. He was an incredible teapot designer, worth much more than I could pay him, but he stayed more than five years. I would wonder how I could ever find someone as good as him. When he quit, the person I replaced him with wasn’t as good. But…this great teapot designer was also a huge prima donna. He put in way more work hours on projects than the clients were willing to pay for because he wasn’t good at scaling to the project needs. He bossed me around in his own way, and was very stubborn. He was a high-maintenance creative type, and I’m a low-maintenance creative type. So the person I replaced him with wasn’t as good a teapot designer, but she was a lot more flexible and easy to work with and I adapted. It was sort of a relief, and my business didn’t collapse/clients didn’t run for the exits. So even when a really great employee leaves, it may not be all that bad.

    Reply
  8. Pup Seal

    I think another thing to remember that there are many reasons to quit a job that aren’t about the manager. People move, become stay-at-home-parents, go back to school, have health issues, career change, travel, retire, etc. Even if someone quits because they found a better opportunity, that’s still not fault on the manager.

    Reply
    1. Fictional Butt

      Yes. OP, it sounds like you’re a great manager, but there might be advice you and #2 from the multi-question thread can both benefit from: you do not have total control over your team. They have lives and priorities outside work. If you think that them leaving–or wanting to leave, or thinking about leaving–is something you should take personally, you might end up smothering them or crossing boundaries. It’s just work! People leave. Don’t worry that they will leave–know that they will leave.

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    2. mf

      Yep. I have quit jobs I really liked or jobs where I was working under managers that I really liked for reasons like this–I got a better offer from another company, I wanted to move to a different state, I wanted a shorter commute, etc.

      You can be the best manager in the world and do everything right, but there are still tons of factors that you have no control over.

      Reply
    3. Tau

      I’m in my notice period right now because I’m an EU citizen working in the UK and current affairs = “OK, it’s been great but I want to go home now”. My managers knew I was looking to leave and I had a long conversation with our HR person about whether there was anything they could do to keep me and all I could say was “…well, no?”. My company is great, any annoyances I have did not rise to the level of quitting over them, and there is zilch they can do about the wider political climate or past referendum results.

      Sometimes, OP, it has nothing to do with you and there’s nothing you can do to prevent it. I’m sure both you and your employees would be a lot happier if you worked with that fact instead of against it!

      Reply
    4. Anon for this

      So, I love my consulting company and the client project I’m assigned to. But I’m likely going to resign and move jobs in the next month or two, purely for financial reasons. I’d love to stay at this company for longer, but needs must.

      Reply
    5. Elizabeth the Ginger

      Yup. The school where I work has several people leaving this year. Some are for professional reasons (associate teachers moving on to lead their own classrooms – 100% expected for that role at my school) but one is moving out of state because their partner got a new job, two are leaving for jobs with much better commutes, one is retiring, one is going on an extended maternity leave… no hard feelings on any side, and I expect that many of them will stay in touch, potentially refer people for future jobs, etc.

      Reply
  9. fposte

    OP, some of my staff positions are grad student positions; they’re crucial to my organization, but they’re inherently time-limited to a few years.

    And on the one hand that’s sad that I’m always saying goodbye to really good people, but it really normalizes growth and turnover in a way that I find very helpful. People outgrow jobs! And you can let out the seams a little, but eventually they need something new. And it’s actually pretty exciting to meet cool new people and find what they can bring to the team that you didn’t know you could have.

    Reply
    1. Hrovitnir

      Not related to the general thread, but as a grad student I’m finding that a bit sad! I’m about to leave my second lab and am feeling really sad about how everyone will be gone if I return to either lab on the timeline I’ve got going. (I mean, I love both the PIs and am friends with some of the techs but the entire schema of an academic lab being continuous turnover is so odd compared to most workplaces.)

      Reply
  10. Shadow

    I tell myself that great people are bound for something better than what I can offer and I’m just glad for their time here

    Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      The old saying I heard is that if the teacher is good, the student surpasses the teacher. In turn, if that student is a good teacher their students will surpass them. This is how it looks if things go well.

      Reply
  11. Stephanie the Great

    One of the things a division that I support struggles with is keeping top talent — and it isn’t because they dislike their jobs, but because there isn’t enough opportunity. The industry is high-turnover, and they often lose great junior- to mid-level individual contributors because there just isn’t enough opportunity at the top of the house for upward mobility. When I started looking into this for them, they were really concerned about keeping the talent in their division. I challenged that view by explaining that it is just as important to be great EXPORTERS of talent, as well as importers. That builds a great employee value proposition across the industry, where people can say, “you know, I had an amazing experience at Teapots Unlimited, that would be a great place for you to get your foot in the door.” Your good talent will send good talent back to you.

    Since I do work for a large company and this is a group that would be considered a corporate support function, I also encouraged them to work with their employees to consider opportunities within the company to move into, rather than leaving the company altogether. This keeps the talent internal to your company, even if they’re not still in your division, and gives you a greater opportunity to connect with them if a higher-level position in your area comes open that they might be interested in. For example — we had some analysts in this group that were doing analysis for one of our business areas. We just exported those analysts to work directly in the business. They get more depth and understanding of that business area, which makes them better at the analyses they were doing in our group, and they can maybe come back in a few years to head up a team of analysts, with the added experience of having been in the business and knowing what they need and look for.

    TL;DR: It’s all about perspective.

    Reply
    1. AllTheFiles

      Yessss. This is wonderful. I know many teams at my company run into the same issue, so they try to do non competes or other gross ways of holding them back. The most successful teams though, have been ones saying “I will grow this as big as it needs to be to fit your vision/goals.” They pride themselves on not losing people, because they know their dreams & make it their goal to help get them there together.

      Reply
  12. NYC Redhead

    It sounds like you have created a great team and a great working atmosphere. One of the benefits of someone leaving is that it opens up a new opportunity for someone, perhaps from within your larger organization, and may help with retention in the long term.

    Reply
    1. TCO

      This is a good point–I’ve left some small orgs/teams because I was ready to move into a new role but there weren’t any opportunities. Turnover makes some room for your current employees to advance and grow. If those openings don’t happen, your employees will leave anyway. For instance, either your team lead leaves and you get to promote someone else into that role, or your team lead never leaves and people below them leave to get promoted elsewhere.

      Reply
  13. MicroManagered

    I would add that OP needs to be careful about letting these anxieties spill over into conversations with staff/about staff. I had a manager who was very worried about this and was constantly voicing her concerns in an attempt feel us out or extract promises that we were not looking. It lead to her being really nosy about time off requests, which gave the impression that she wouldn’t approve time off without a detailed explanation of what it was for, etc.

    One time (the only time I ever did this), I emailed her at night to say I would be an hour late due to a personal matter. She cornered me the next day to tell me she’d had stress dreams all night that I was late because I was at an interview. She also said this to my coworker. (I was and I left shortly after, thankfully.) This is the kind of thing that can become really toxic, so I think it’s important to deal with these anxieties on your own and not rely on staff to reassure you.

    (Not implying OP is doing this, nothing in her letter says that, but I think it’s worth noting that this is one potential avenue for this kind of thinking and it will do the OPPOSITE of retaining good employees.)

    Reply
    1. k

      That’s a good point. Plus if they know their manager is like that, then when they do eventually leave they’re not likely to be open about it out of fear of the managers reaction. I could see people giving shorter notice, or avoid bringing up issues that could prevent them from leaving. The situation could easily turn into a self fulfilling prophecy.

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    2. FlibertyG

      Agree, don’t become this manager. Try to keep your anxieties YOURS and not spew them all over your employees (not I think you do that, OP, just that this is where the train of thought can end up taking you). I also had a boss who sought this kind of reassurance from me, and it was not beneficial to our relationship.

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    3. OP Here

      I swear I don’t do this. I approve all days off (if I can), I never ask why (unless it’s a week and they’re obviously going on vacation), and I curb my crazy in front of my staff. But a very reasonable warning!

      And also, WTF to your former boss. Jeez.

      Reply
      1. MicroManagered

        Absolutely don’t think you are this way. I just wanted to give an example of how bad this fear can get. (Clearly, my old boss is not as self-aware as you are! :)

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        1. OP Here

          Lol yeahhhh, I have been there! Different details, of course, but I had a boss who — in the words of Alison — “sucked and was never going to change” and I basically learned all my management skills from doing the opposite of her. So, you know, the What Would Jesus Do of the workplace, but rather What Would [Manager] Do… and then do the opposite. Almost zero exceptions. Sometimes you get the best lessons when you least expect it. ;)

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      2. Not So NewReader

        You are wise to want to shed “your crazy” entirely.

        I think it is impossible for bosses to hide this fear for a long period of time. It eventually bubbles to the surface as they just cannot contain it. The remedy would be to look for ways to get rid of it, as you are doing.

        I had a boss who worried non-stop, she would sabotage things because she felt someone was job hunting. (She was wrong, but they started job hunting after her sabotage.)
        Just a few things I noticed in watching her:
        I realized that she had no confidence in her ability to manage. Well there were legit reasons for that. She had been thrown into the job with no formal training and the company did not train her once she received the position.

        That lack of confidence manifested in other ways also. Too many ways to mention here, but people really noticed. She did not believe in herself that much and even worse, she did not believe that she could learn what she needed to learn. You might find it helpful to coach yourself, “I will learn what I need to learn to do this job.”

        And this last one is what really did her in, she refused to develop a plan of what she would do if she lost a key person or if she lost any person. Some vague plan is better than no plan. Have you looked at the job descriptions lately? Are the descriptions up to date? What about the salary range? Even if you rough it out in pencil and stick it in your desk draw you have started thinking about what you would do if you needed to replace someone. Personally, I would start with the key people. What makes them so good? What do they need to do their jobs?

        Perhaps the company gave you a handbook with guidelines for hiring. You could review that and put notes in the margins of things you think are important to you.

        Perhaps none of this fits your setting. My overarching idea here is take what worries you and find an action plan that off-sets the worry. For example, you could decide to keep a list stashed away of people who have expressed interest in working for your department. Probably you can think of other supportive actions that you can do to help lessen the concern here.

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    4. Another person

      Agree, and I’m glad the OP is here asking for advice instead of emoting at the employees.

      I had a manager deliver a monologue proclaiming her love for everything about her job during a staff meeting, and end her speech with “None of you better leave me!” Then she looked straight at me, after I had recently taken time off (I didn’t tell her it was for an interview). I gotta say, all that sure didn’t make me second guess my decision to leave; instead it gave me added confidence my decision to take the offer was the right one.

      People leave for lots of reasons. But I think whatever the reason, transitions are easier for everyone, including remaining staff, when the manager can keep their emotions about it in check.

      Reply
  14. FlyingFergus

    I think being a good manager is a bit similar to being a good parent. You know you’ve succeeded when your child/employee is able to leave you and flourish, independently of your presence.

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    1. LBK

      Agreed – I think one mark of a good manager is someone whose employees grow and develop to the point that they transcend what’s available to them in their current role/on their current team and need to move on to the next step.

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    2. Not So NewReader

      In many jobs this is the case.

      My uncle managed a department for a well-known newspaper. His employee retention plan was novel at the time. He told people they were so damn good they could get a job anywhere. (He did not lie, he would point to things that they actually did well with.) What happened next was interesting. People were less willing to leave. They got picky about what their next job would be and where they would go or who they would be working for. They thought about working for my uncle and the advantages there (training, autonomy, etc.) Almost counter-intuitively, it slowed down the whole employee turn over process.
      (He knew this to be true because eventually some of them told him this was what was going on.) His comment was, “They could have been paid more elsewhere, but they stayed here in my company.”

      He never said but I think he actually liked his crew as much as they liked him.

      Reply
  15. PNW Jenn

    One of the best things a boss ever said to my team was this: While I don’t want any of you to leave, I hope someday to see each of you move along to better things.

    As an employee, I felt very supported and appreciated. I have since worked my way to the VP level of a small firm and am the happiest I’ve ever been professionally.

    Reply
  16. Shadow

    You know if it makes you feel better I bet you have employees that are constantly anxious about being fired

    Reply
      1. Shadow

        Not from the letter just from experience. I know lots of people that are worried about every little mistake, every random meeting, every leering with HR, every meeting with the big boss. And it all stems from a fear of being fired or laid off.

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      2. k

        Some people are just always worried about being fired without good reason, just like OP is worried about people leaving when there’s no indication of problems. I know I never feel completely secure in any job. I like to think of it as a healthy does of fear, keeps me from getting complacent.

        Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      Good point. And that is no failing on your part, OP. I remember I got fired from my very first job. It took me about ten years to really shake that off and that had nothing to do with subsequent bosses.

      Reply
  17. The Other Katie

    Something that might help with the anxiety of a key person leaving is to take some time and do a complete job analysis of every single role in your team, and then update them regularly. That will make sure that you have up-to-date, accurate job descriptions if someone leaves, and it will help make sure that nothing gets dropped on the floor when someone does leave. It can also help with rebalancing roles to make sure that the work is shared fairly, avoiding a cause of slow-building resentment and possible turnover on small teams.

    Reply
    1. OP Here

      Great advice, thanks. I ensure everyone is cross trained, but I haven’t done a full analysis or job descriptions in about 6 months. Any thoughts on how to do this without sending the team into a tizzy with them thinking I am firing them?

      Reply
      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        I actually don’t think you need to do it every six months; that’s a pretty serious time investment that you probably don’t have the luxury of doing so often. Even annually would still be way more frequent than most people do, and might not be needed, depending on your context.

        Reply
        1. OP Here

          I did job descriptions for the teapot design role (which is 4 of the roles), so that’s relatively up to date, but it’s the day-to-day things that I’m sure they do that I need more visibility on. That’s a bit more in depth (and not static), and I haven’t done that side of it yet. Annually would be more than enough, though.

          Reply
      2. k

        That type of documentation can be helpful when someone is out of the office, whether it’s for a short vacation or a longer period like maternity leave. Framing it that way would be less concerning.

        Reply
      3. Djuna

        My boss redid ours recently, just after a new hire, because she wanted a way to clearly explain how role x differs from role y, and to almost outline a path between them.
        It can be a great thing to do if you have any junior members on your team looking to advance, and if you frame it in that way it shouldn’t cause any worries.

        Reply
  18. CorporateLady

    For teams that I’ve supervised for 6 months or more, as I have one on ones with my staff to talk about career development, I open the conversation about where they want to go internally or externally. I also communicate to my team that they can always tell me that they are searching with no expectation of retaliation. However, if you’re going to say that, you have to be prepared to commit to it. To me, having that open dialogue and checking my feelings when one of my direct reports is searching is way worth the heads up of a potential departure.

    Reply
  19. seashell

    I have a lot of anxiety about someone in my group leaving, even as I am looking to leave, too. I work really hard to be reliable and the idea that my boss could think I’m interviewing when I’m not makes me nuts. So I’m not sure how I’ll handle it when I actually need to interview.

    Reply
  20. Pete

    The OP’s attitude is what I expect from management. If we’re good they don’t want us to leave. They claim to “invest in my team’s growth,” but they don’t actually want us to grow out of the roles.

    I’m sure there are great managers out there who want their reports to advance professionally, but I’ve never had the pleasure of working for one.

    Reply
    1. Pol

      Pete, your comment is neither kind nor particularly on-topic: OP is uneasy with their anxiety about reports leaving, and is here exactly to understand why this feeling arises, not looking to be hand-waved fatalistically.

      TBH, you could have used your exact point, rephrased it as a kind, helpful insight into an employee’s point of view, and be both useful and perfectly aligned with commenting guidelines.

      Reply
    2. OP Here

      I’m not sure that’s a fair statement. I invest in their roles by providing them access and time for training, pay for their certifications, increase their salaries as they become more experienced, and have promoted two members of my team. I think you can not want someone to leave, but still support their growth, especially in a company that has opportunities for growth.

      On an even more personal note, I started at this company in one role, was promoted within six months due to taking on a larger amount of responsibilities and growing in my role. So my boss both retained me and supported my growth out of one role into the next.

      Reply
      1. Not So NewReader

        My boss says, “I don’t want you to leave” and then hands me a job ad she has found.
        These folks exist. Granted they are not everywhere, but there are quite a few around. (I did this to someone recently, and their reaction was pure shock. So I explained that especially with part time jobs the way to keep a person is to help them find another part time job. This will help with their income and hopefully help them stay a while longer.)

        Reply
    3. LBK

      I don’t think being happy for someone to grow and succeed and also being sad to see them go if they leave are mutually exclusive.

      Reply
    4. Jady

      There’s a difference between someone packing up their box with short notice and out the door for a new position, vs someone who’s promoted or moved.

      A promoted person is still at the company, their promotion is a planned process, they are still available after the transition if anything critical arises, etc. Heck if it took a month to find a replacement, it could be arranged for training to occur at that point.

      Don’t get me wrong – your experience is my experience too, where promotions have been promised but not delivered, where the company isn’t making an effort to keep people, etc.

      But not wanting them to leave, vs wanting them to grow – aren’t necessarily linked.

      Reply
    5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      I’m sorry that this has been your experience. It is not the norm in other fields (and may not be the norm in your industry).

      I also don’t think the problem you’ve identified reflects OP’s attitude. OP is worried about people leaving. I think this is a common pitfall for managers, but it’s not necessarily because they’re doing coldhearted calculus about losing their “investment” in that employee. I’ve seen managers who are warm, kind, and invested in their employees as human beings struggle with the thought of people leaving specifically because they do care about the person as a person and want to be able to keep working with someone they like. Many roads can lead to Rome.

      Reply
      1. Totally understand this

        This is a perfect way of putting it. I’m new to my organization (but not a new manager) and have found that one employee has gone above and beyond to help me get acclimated. Amazingly, she also applied for the job I got and doesn’t hold it against me. However, she is looking to leave the organization. We’ve had several open and honest conversations and I totally support her. But I dread the day she does give notice. On one hand, I will be very happy for her. But on the other, I will just miss working with her because I think she is a great person.

        Reply
  21. OP Here

    Thanks Alison.

    “But I suspect that your worry is that people leaving would reflect badly on you as a manager. Even if you don’t worry that other people will think that, at some level do you feel like if you were a good manager, your staff would all stay? And that if they leave, you have failed in keeping them?”

    This. I wasn’t able to articulate it, or perhaps even realize this is the root of it all, but this is it.

    Reply
    1. Tangerina Warbleworth

      I think a small part of that anxiety over perceived failure will go away when one of your staff leaves, for whatever reason, and a few days later you get a lovely card in the mail with a handwritten note from them about what a great manager you were and how they’ll always use what you did as a guide to succeed.

      Reply
    2. Cassandra

      I left a terrific manager once. He was visibly upset about it, even though it genuinely had nothing to do with him and nothing to do with the workplace. (I didn’t like the location, is the long and short of it; I found it a difficult place to live.)

      They do say (including here) “people leave managers,” so I understand where your anxiety is coming from. Feel free to tack on “but that’s not the only reason people leave” if it helps! It’s just as true!

      Is there possibly a celebration or ritual you could institute — even just for yourself — to “graduate” your employees to their new adventures? (I’m an educator, so that’s the metaphor that occurs to me fastest.) A small thoughtful gift, a department party or lunch if that works with your culture, something like that.

      Reply
      1. OP Here

        That’s sweet, and I like the idea of graduating. We had one employee who left (shortly before he was going to be terminated), and we had a nice going away party for him. It was a nice send off, but I also wasn’t terribly upset he was leaving. If one of my key staff did leave, I would certainly have a send off of sorts.

        Reply
        1. Not So NewReader

          You might be surprised by your reaction in the moment, OP. Each person has a story and a life that is unfolding for them. You can look at the group and think, “OMG, what if they leave?” But they don’t just vanish into thin air, there is surrounding context. That story might ease your worries in ways that you cannot anticipate right now.
          When you are in the moment, it might not look as horrid as it does in your mind’s eye.

          Reply
    3. Stephanie the Great

      If they’re good employees and they leave on good terms for a new opportunity, I would argue that you have done your job very well :) Complacent, mediocre workers are the ones who try to stay in the same place forever. Of course, I know I’m generalizing by saying that, there are certainly positions where long tenures make sense (e.g., admin staff, office managers, etc.). But letting them grow and then letting them go means you’re serving them well. And when they do leave, you have the opportunity to do that again with another person. How exciting :)

      Reply
    4. Hrovitnir

      As someone whose only supportive and professional boss was at the supermarket I worked at as a teenager, I appreciate what you [are trying to] do! And I’m really glad you care about turnover – it frustrated me no end working somewhere with 90% turnover year after year and a boss who wouldn’t listen when we told him why. As has been said above, you will lose people due to life stuff and moving on with their careers, but if you have provided decent remuneration and opportunities to grow you will absolutely be remembered positively and it will only be good for your working environment and industry.

      (To be fair my longest standing, totally toxic boss, was also really supportive and helped me grow. He was just also a terrible bully to people around me and actively impeded his passionate staff’s attempts to make his business run smoothly. *sigh* That workplace was the perfect example of being like a family – a messed up family that filled you with cognitive dissonance.)

      Reply
  22. AndersonDarling

    I’d be worried if the roles paid poorly and offered terrible benefits, because it would take months to find anyone willing to fill the vacancy and the new hire would probably be under qualified. But this team sounds great! Good benefits, good salary, good manager support…no need to worry. If someone leaves, you will have to pick form the best candidates available.

    Reply
    1. OP Here

      Thankfully I don’t need to worry about poor pay / terrible benefits. I can’t take credit for that though, as it comes from the top (I am also paid well and have great benefits). But having that standard definitely, definitely helps.

      Reply
  23. drpuma

    I’m assuming that since your team is small, there are relatively few opportunities for folks to advance and stay on your team. That does not reflect on you in any way and is something important to keep in mind. If you are part of a larger company you can still be an awesome manager and help people move up within the organization but outside of your team. This will also build relationships that could help you get quality internal and external referrals when you need them.

    Cross-training is great but documentation is better. It sounds like you are doing your best to work with/around the fact that most of your institutional knowledge lives in peoples’ heads. OP, would employees leaving be less scary from a productivity standpoint if you had well-documented procedures?

    Reply
      1. k

        Add five more yeses from me. I work in a department that has had a good amount of turn over and restructuring over the years. I wish there had been more documentation. We spend a lot of time reinventing the wheel and trying to solve these little mysteries that could have been explained in a two sentence note.

        Reply
      2. OP Here

        Agreeeeeeed. Our Q1 and Q2 priorities were all around documentation, especially in teapot design, as I don’t actually design teapots but run the business side of teapot design. The documentation has helped me sleep at night.

        Reply
  24. LizB

    As a newish manager who has recently had several reports leave, I really relate to this letter writer. It wasn’t so bad when it was just one person moving on — I know that’s a natural part of doing business — but then a couple more left and now I’m a little terrified when any of my remaining team members asks for a private meeting. The worst part is, they’re leaving because of reasons that are totally out of my control. There are structural issues with our team that I just can’t fix as quickly as I want to, so despite my desire to make it a great team to work on, it’s still not quite where it should be. Just trying to breathe through the anxiety and hire as fast as I can (which is a whole ‘nother structural fiasco) so my remaining folks don’t get overwhelmed with coverage.

    Reply
    1. TCO

      That’s tough. It sounds like you’re doing a great job in a hard situation. If I were your employee, I’d want continuing transparency and updates about hiring, coverage, and the other efforts you’re making to improve the team. It’s a lot easier to stick out tough times when there’s a “we’re all in this together” spirit and I can trust that my management takes the problems seriously and is doing their best to address them.

      Reply
      1. LizB

        I’ve been doing hiring updates every week, and I’m hopefully making an offer to someone today (*crosses all fingers and toes*) and scheduling a second round interview for the last opening for next week. Unfortunately I can’t be 100% transparent as a lot of what’s happening is 4-5 levels above me and it doesn’t make sense to tell the team everything, but I’m trying my best.

        Reply
  25. Allypopx

    One big thing I try to focus on as a manger is professional development. I try to constantly be teaching people new skills, assigning projects to match overall goals, develop soft skills and nuanced communication, and help people feel like they’re working towards something. It’s something that’s helped me attract and keep great talent over the years. It’s also something that inherently equips people to leave.

    I consider that a success, personally. It means I’ve accomplished my goal of helping them grow. It also gives me the opportunity to hire and manage greener candidates so my own skills don’t get rusty. Plus I looooove giving references for those employees, I always talk about them with such pride.

    But even with all that, it sucks to get their notice. It won’t be great, OP, but frame it positively in your head – you sound like you’re doing all the right things, this is part of the package.

    Reply
  26. H.C.

    Also, try to refrain from automatically assuming coming in late/leaving early/taking middle of week off as “Sh*t, interviews!” People have complicated lives and a myriad of reasons for doing these things outside of a job search. Personally I’ve done all those things because of family matters, medical appointments, household emergencies or simply wanting a midweek break or abridged workday after wrapping up an intensive project.

    Reply
    1. Nea

      I was coming in to make this comment myself. I have yet to have a service or doctor’s appointment that *wasn’t* in the middle of the week.

      Reply
      1. OP Here

        lol touche. This is especially amusing as I literally went to the doctor in the middle of the work morning today. ;)

        Reply
    2. Tau

      I actually really enjoy taking Wednesday or Thursday afternoons off every now and then just because? I work in the morning, then head into town, grab lunch, do a bit of shopping, write in a cafe for a while, cook something complicated for dinner… it’s a nice midweek break and I get a lot of relaxation for that half a day of PTO.

      Reply
  27. Alton

    Keep in mind that while changes can hurt, they can also be positive. Even if you lose a great employee, the next person might bring something new to the position that you wouldn’t expect. That change can be very healthy and keep your company from getting stagnant.

    Reply
    1. TCO

      Good point. Heck, even when I’ve been the one to leave a job, I can often see fresh strengths that my replacement brings to the role. I’m known as a top performer yet sometimes my teams benefit from having someone else come in with new energy and perspectives–and my replacement is often a top performer, too, in her own way.

      Reply
  28. Jubilance

    I’ve had some amazing managers in my career, but even as great as they were, they weren’t enough to make me stay and me leaving wasn’t a reflection on them. I left one job because I wanted to relocate, and I left another job because I wanted a career change. If I could have taken those managers with me, I would have! People definitely do leave jobs because of bad managers, but you shouldn’t assume that people are leaving because of you – they could need a better commute, want more salary, want a career change, etc.

    Reply
  29. Victoria, Please

    Losing someone in August as she is going on to a PhD. I’m thrilled for her because I don’t want my team to be what-they-are-forever-because-it’s-easier. My plan to keep us going is to have an emergency temporary person to take care of the coordination stuff she does — while I consider the best possible use of an open position. This gives me a chance to slightly rethink the unit’s personnel make-up. I don’t have to hire that exact same position again if I feel that the department would be better served by a different skill set.

    It’s VERY nifty to have your good people go on to do more good things.

    Reply
  30. Bolt

    It can be helpful to remind yourself of ALL potential reasons that someone takes time off during the week rather than always thinking it is likely a job interview.

    Maybe they wanted to catch a matinee, run some errands, watch a tv marathon, dance around their house naked or just take a day off so that they can remain appreciative of their current job!

    Reply
    1. Jady

      To add something silly on top of this – Tuesdays/Wednesdays tend to be the most important days of the week to people who are really into video games. New games and expansions and DLC tend to come out on Tuesdays.

      Just a tidbit of knowledge to share. I have definitely taken a few Tu/W off because of this!

      Reply
  31. Government Worker

    From an employee’s perspective, I’ve had two managers who were really great on this front. The first was an executive who had a cycle of hiring bright new college grads to be his admins and then helping them move elsewhere in the company after a year or two. One day he asked me kind of out of the blue if I’d talked to a different executive about an analyst job, and when I said I didn’t know anything about it he walked me over to that exec’s office to have the conversation (which consisted of “You want the job? Great!”). It had been clear to him from the start that I was destined for something with spreadsheets and quantitative thinking, and it was great for both me and the company for me to move into the new role. My successor, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly as good with numbers but ended up in an event planning type role after a couple of years in the admin position. That attitude is much easier with entry-level jobs where there are tons of qualified candidates, of course.

    The other boss is my current one. I’ve been in the job about 18 months, and it’s very clear that I’m a top performer. I was only a few months in when he idly asked me if I had thoughts about where in our very large agency I might like to end up one day, and he had a couple of suggestions for departments to keep an eye on. It let me know that whenever I’m ready to move on he’ll be supportive, even though I’ll be hard to replace (I have an unusual combination of skills and industry knowledge, and he mostly has to hire for one and teach the other). And it showed me that he understands the current department dynamic means I will leave eventually, since there’s no where to move up to until he retires. I’m much happier knowing that I’ll be able to maintain that good relationship when the time comes, and I think we’re much likelier to have a smooth transition of projects. And it will be better for the organization for me to maintain strong ties with my current department – my department could really use a better relationship with the department I’m most likely to go to next.

    TL;DR: Being supportive of employees leaving is good for everyone.

    Reply
  32. Jady

    “but I can’t envision real honesty of “Actually, this sucks and I want out so I am looking for another job” if someone actually felt that way.”

    What you can do is ask them what they would like to see improved – in the company as a whole, in the team/work, and for them personally.

    And do not accept “oh everything is great I wouldn’t change a thing”, because there is *always* room for improvement.

    It could be as simple as new tea in the breakroom, or it could lead into a long conversation about things you didn’t expect. The important thing is that you really make it clear you want this kind of feedback.

    I suggest this for 3 reasons:
    1 – If nothing else, they’ll know you care about improving things, and they might be more likely to come to you when something is becoming a problem.
    2 – You’ll get a feel for the general direction and severity of anything people raise.
    3 – There might be things that you can do that maybe they thought you couldn’t.

    I think these kinds of conversations are important to retaining the best people. You expect your employees to constantly improve and become more valuable, so the company (as a whole) should also try to do the same in regards to their employees.

    Reply
    1. JobSeeker

      For me, action and behavior is so important. A manager who says “Do you have any questions?” – that’s easy to ask, but someone who says “Do you have any questions?” and who actually listens, without condescension or snark, that’s the more valuable manager. That’s the one I want to work for.

      Reply
  33. Sfigato

    I saw a quote recently that stuck with me: “That which we cannot face finds us anyways.” The only constant is change. We can’t stop change from happening. We can’t control our environment to the extent that change stops happening. What we can do is be as prepared as possible for change.

    Also, I worked somewhere with very low turnover, and that was almost as bad as when I worked somewhere with really high turnover. Many longtime employees are fantastic assets, but it is easy for people to get complacent or in a rut.

    Reply
  34. Badmin

    OP, I don’t know if you have let any of this seep through to the employees but I was in a similar situation where it would be questioned/joked about if I were interviewing if I came into working dressed nicer than usual (usually laundry day or felt like dressing up), take time off, or what would make me leave etc. It ended up stressing me out about what work thinks when I am out or I have an unusual doctor’s appt. Just some experience from the other side in case there is anything you can do to keep these thoughts internal. It’s very awkward for an employee when someone senior to you jokes about interviewing. Not saying I got that from your letter, it just reminded me of my experience.

    Reply
  35. Poster Child

    Some of the best people I’ve hired came in after someone else good left. If one door closes, a window will open…

    Reply
    1. OP Here

      LOL omg, I would flip out about that too, but I report directly to the owner, so he’s not going anywhere. Thankfully. :)

      Crossing my fingers you get to keep your great manager!

      Reply
  36. Lobbyist

    When I supervised a group of people my goal for the good performers was to try to make it really hard for them to find a better job. The package of benefits, responsibility, flexibility, etc that I could provide was as good as I could possibly make it. But if they could find a better job then by all means do, don’t be embarrassed or ashamed of it and of course I’ll give you the best truthful recommendation I can. The advantage to this is that people told me when they were looking because they weren’t afraid of me freaking out if they left. That way I had plenty of time to plan around it. A couple times people looked and couldn’t find anything better and stayed so yay for both of us. And I love the alumni idea — people leave but they refer their friends, we stay colleagues, etc.

    Reply
  37. RecoveringMiddleManager

    This posting is incredibly timely for me. I left a job last week where I was on the Executive Team with the CEO and the CFO. I supervised about half of the employees (4), and our CEO supervised another 4, including me. I always told my folks that first and foremost I wanted them to feel satisfied and excited about the work, and I would do what I could to make that happen. I also told them that they should never be afraid to tell me they were looking at another position, and that if it was a step up for them, or helped them grow in some way, I use that as a measure of my success too. If it’s not a growth move, that’s a signal to me that I need to examine what we can do to make employees feel valued and rewarded. My boss was exactly the opposite. Employees were often treated like greedy enemies who don’t appreciate what she’s given them or understand how lucky they are to work for her. She was openly upset about the fact that the employees, all of them, including her reports, seemed to like me more, and would frequently accuse me of “taking their side.” Didn’t know it was a war, but whatever. She knew I didn’t want her job, so I’m not sure what she thought my end game was. At any rate, I gave 30-days notice, and she spent the time (1) passively hinting that I hadn’t done any work so it wouldn’t be hard to just not replace me; and (2) implementing new “rules” like, “If you think you might want to look for a job in 7 or 8 months, let me know now.” Instead of examining how to make the org an employer of choice, she was interested in how she could reduce the inconvenience of replacing an employee. So glad I’m out.

    Reply

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