what to do when an employee resigns

A reader writes:

What are the things I should do or think about when an employee resigns? In the past, I’ve generally been caught off guard and I’ve not always handled it as smoothly as I suspect I should, and I haven’t always known how to make the best use of their remaining time. Is there a protocol for what to do when someone gives notice?

You’re not alone in not being prepared for employee resignations! Most managers are caught off guard by them, but there are a few simple principles to remember to make them go more smoothly.

1. Take the news well. You might be panicking inside about how you’re going to deal with the vacancy, as well as finding a replacement and getting that person up to speed, but you should not take this panic out on the employee. Getting angry or guilt-tripping her about their resignation isn’t appropriate or professional. Instead, congratulate her on her new position and her them that she’ll be missed. And remember, your other employees will hear about how treat people who resign, and will take their cues accordingly.

2. Don’t make a counter-offer. Managers often make countoffers in a moment of panic (“We can’t lose Jane right now! We have that big project coming up!”), but they rarely work out well in the long-term. Your employee has decided to leave. If you try to lure her back with more money, you’re generally just retaining a dissatisfied employee, and kicking the problem down the road. Resist the urge.

3. Discuss logistics right away. Find out when her last day will be, what she thinks she can accomplish between now and then, and when and how she’d like to announce her leaving to the staff. That last one is important. If your employee is handling her resignation professionally and pleasantly – as most people do – you should leave it up to her to tell her colleagues (although make sure that happens soon, so that you can move forward with transition planning). On the other hand, if she seems bitter or unhappy, you might choose to manage that announcement yourself so that you have some control over the tone.

4. Create a transition plan. Sit down with your employee and make a list of everything she’s currently working on, including key client relationships. From there, figure out (a) what she should finish up before she leaves and (b) how you will handle those responsibilities before a replacement is hired. For the former, make sure that your staff member has a clear and specific to-do list … which should also include plans for transferring key knowledge and contacts before she goes, as well as how to alert outside contacts of her departure so that they aren’t surprised when an email to her bounces back one day.

But don’t check out once that plan is created. You’ll want to check in on her progress during her remaining weeks – don’t just trust that everything on that plan is getting done or you risk finding out on her last day that things aren’t being left in the shape you’d assumed.

5. Think about what you need in a replacement, and begin recruiting. Don’t just automatically post the same job description that you used last time. Take this opportunity to think about what you really need in the role and how it might have changed over time. Make sure that you’re hiring for what you need today, not what you needed when that dusty job description was first written. Once you’re clear on that, swing into recruiting mode immediately – hiring well takes time, and generally the sooner you start, the better.

{ 39 comments… read them below }

  1. E.R*

    When I resigned from my last job (where I was a high performer who got along with everyone) I gave three weeks notice, and included a solid transition plan in my resignation. My boss handled it soooo poorly – he started off a bit surprised, and then quickly started berating me, telling me I lack integrity for quitting, that I couldn’t put the job on my resume (I worked there for 1.5 years and of course I include it on my resume) and that I would fail at my new job and he would never take me back when that happened. He also told me that I should just walk out, rather than work my notice, and when I politely refused, he fired me.

    So, even though the job itself wasn’t so bad, and I might have otherwise recommended the company to people who are interested in the industry (as I do with other former employers) I will never, ever recommend to anyone that they devote any of their professional life to that company, given how they treated me when I resigned.

      1. Seal*

        I hope you were able to let HR know how your boss reacted – that’s total BS on his part.

        1. E.R*

          Ah, there was no HR department! He was the owner’s son, so could get away with anything. A toxic environment for sure, just happy I no longer work there.

    1. EM*

      Wow, and I thought it was bad when my former boss called me into his office 3 days after I gave my 2 weeks’ notice to inform me that they had decided to accept my resignation right then.

    2. Miss Displaced*

      My current boss did something similar to an employee that quit. And I mean that girl had done nearly everything she could to help the company.

      Even worse, he gave her a bad reference when someplace called about her. Not only did I hear it, he bragged about how he would never tell anyone she was a good worker.

      It’s horrible and I know what I’m up against should I find another job and I try to prepare for it.

  2. Joey*

    I’d also ask her a few key optional questions to help you in the future:

    1. Why is she leaving?
    2. Was she satisfied with the pay?
    3. What did she like about the job/company?
    4. What would she change?

    Otherwise known as an exit interview.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes, absolutely … although I’d also encourage people to do that before anyone is thinking of leaving! Too often, employers only do exit interviews, when in fact they should be doing “stay interviews” with their good performers.

      1. Jamie*

        My boss does that. Touches base every so often to make sure I’m happy and asks about any issues I may have work wise…which is rare since if I have issues I deal with them…I don’t fester when it comes to external problems.

        In fact just this morning he stopped in to let me know that he knows I worry about work in addition to my health thing and I shouldn’t that I should just focus on getting better and taking the time I need and that any concern about my job is all in my head. It was nice because even though they’ve given me no reason to think they were getting frustrated, I am frustrated with myself and tend to project that. I lean toward paranoid by nature.

        Weird that he knows me that well – but it was nice to hear that they still value me and my work and we’re still moving forward on projects important to me and it’s okay if it moves a little slower while I’m not feeling well.

        But he does this a couple times a year, even before I got sick…just checking in making sure I’m happy here and that my plans and goals are still aligned with my job here. I know he does this with other people as well…it’s not a big meeting, just a conversation.

      2. KarenT*

        Agree, but I’ve seen people’s answers change drastically between “check-ins” and exit interviews. People tend to be more honest when they aren’t scared of the politics of speaking up.

        1. Nicky*

          I don’t know why, maybe just my personality, but the way I see it, if they’re asking me a particular question then they’d better be prepared for an honest answer. I have no problem being open and honest in the rare solicitations for input that I get at my current job. They usually don’t want that kind of input from employees, though.

  3. ProcReg*

    I had a boss that was a bully. Her personal life was falling apart, and she took it out on her workers. Our department suffered (as did my work-I couldn’t work for her). Eventually, the dept. exit interviews were SO BAD that they removed her from her fiefdom, and gave her a reduced job title. (Turns out I had anxiety disorder. She was affecting my health.)

    She had left early on a Friday, with me having a resignation letter written. I needed to email it to her, so I could get it to her. She didn’t handle the news real well.

    On the Monday following, she called me into her office, and told me she hated me. She went on; I just looked out her office window at the football stadium.

    That was six years ago. The CEO “resigned” because of wasteful government spending, they lost a major contract due to mismanagement, and one of her lieutenants took over (who stirs up as much trouble as the predecessor). Amazing.

  4. Anonymous*

    Don’t do what my boss did when I gave my 3.5 MONTHS notice which was email me a list of what he needed for handover notes three days before my final day while I was out of the office manning a conference (which he insisted I attend alone rather than using it as an opportunity for another member of staff to take on some of my responsibilities while I was still there to answer questions). Then he was fully booked on my final two days in the office so not available for a face to face handover.

    Luckily I’d been making notes during my notice period but I don’t think they were ever read by my boss and I know they weren’t passed on because the person who took on my job emailed me with questions which were covered in the notes.

  5. Sabrina*

    I could be totally off base here (it happens) but I’ve always heard that managers shouldn’t be surprised if an employee leaves. That they should know which employees aren’t happy or have career plans beyond what they are doing now. Is that not the case? I’m not a manager, that’s just what I’ve heard.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ideally you wouldn’t be, but in practice sometimes you’re going to be. Some people play things close to the vest. Some people are happy but an offer they can’t resist falls in their lap, or their spouse needs to move, or whatever. I think the general principle is that in general you want to be in touch enough with your employees to know who’s happy and who might not be, but I don’t think you can avoid all surprises.

    2. BCW*

      I think thats the ideal, but not necessarily true. You could get along great with your boss, but not necessarily like the company. In which case, I doubt you would be telling that to your boss.

    3. KarenT*

      Sometimes perfectly happy people leave because they get a better offer. Recently a co-worker/friend of mine left our company, and she truly loved it here. She was approached by another company and they made her a great offer. It was a hard decision for her (she almost didn’t take it) but she did because their location was closer to her house and she’s been with our company for six years, so she was interested in a change.

      1. tcookson*

        One of my co-workers at a former job was approached several times over the course of 3 – 4 years by recruiters on behalf of the home office of the world’s largest retailer. She must have been really good at her job (she was an accountant in the finance department), because even though she turned them down 2 – 3 times, they finally made an offer with a salary/benefits package too good to resist.

        I was pretty impressed, because that’s the only time I’ve ever seen anyone courted so persistently for a job offer. Everyone was really sad to see her go, but her boss handled it well and wished her all the best.

  6. Bonnie*

    Very timely list. We have three people leaving this month. I’m happy to say that we have done everything on your list but number 5. The only reason we haven’t done that yet is that we too many people on vacation right now to do it right.

  7. Rebecca*

    I like the part about “don’t get angry”. My manager threw a nutty fit when she found out I was looking for another job and had gone on an interview, complete with pacing around her office, screaming, and telling me that we are a “family” and “family” doesn’t do this to each other.

    I can’t wait to see what happens if I land another job (keeping fingers crossed). I’m not looking until I have my 6 month emergency fund in place, as I’m sure she’ll just fire me on the spot during yet another meltdown.

    As for exit interviews? I lied like a rug when I left my first job. No way was I going to burn bridges when I may have to accept a job at that company again in the future.

    1. BCW*

      Was your exit interview with your manager or with HR? Anytime I’ve done an exit interview with HR, I felt I could be totally honest because their job is to really have a sense of how things in other departments are going.

      1. Rebecca*

        When I left my first job after 18 1/2 years, my exit interview was with HR. The same HR person who was famous for the “good question, I’ll get back to you” answer and never followed through. My direct manager was ineffective, and the VP over him was a bully. Their behaviors were well known in the company, but no one would address them.

        My standard answer was “I’ve found another position at a new company that offers room for growth, and while I’ve enjoyed my time here, it’s time to move on”. I wouldn’t tell them anything past that.

        1. EM*

          This. I liked the work I did at my last job, but my boss was awful to work for. My exit interview consisted of a form to fill out and answer questions, which I left on my desk completely blank. I didn’t even fill in my name.

    2. Windchime*

      I was invited to do an exit interview, but I declined. They didn’t listen to anything I said while I was there; why would an exit interview be any different? I did go to an administrator on my last day and had a very candid talk with her about some serious issues that were wrong with the place; she acted like she was listening but according to friends who still worked there, nothing changed for the better.

  8. Seal*

    My last year at my previous job turned into a nightmare. My boss, with whom I thought I had a great relationship, got promoted and lied to me about my future with the organization. Basically, he told me for weeks that I would take over his position, but in the end it turned out he had been lying all along. While I came close to walking out in disgust, I stuck it out in the interest of finishing the masters degree I was working on a job hunting, which he knew I was doing (he even offered to write a glowing letter of recommendation for me, which surprisingly he did). But once I gave my notice (3 weeks), he didn’t speak to me again. There was a list of things he was supposed to do when staff left, like gathering keys and contacting IT and such; he did none of it. He didn’t even bother to come to say good-bye to me on my last day, something I would have thought he would do just to make sure I actually left. Not surprisingly, within a year of my leaving the place fell completely apart, and my former boss was fired for stealing and abusing his authority with his subordinates. Karma is a beautiful thing.

  9. Sarah*

    I just accepted a new position on Friday! I’m thrilled. Unfortunately, my boss was going on vacation for 2 weeks, starting Friday night. I was able to tell her and set goals for a transition. She was shocked, angry, and more. She told me that she was disappointed that I was not committed for the long-term (I had contracted for a year, and then full-time staff for a year). She then insisted that I give more than a 2 week notice – looking for 4 total. This is a completely toxic, energy-sucking environment. I cannot wait to get away while still completing an extensive transition document, completing multiple reports and a federal grant proposal. She asked me to complete an additional report (one that I already turned in in January so she obviously has no clue what is going on).

    1. Sarah*

      I’ll add that I am the second employee to leave in 6 months. More people would leave if they had job options locally.

    2. Mike C.*

      First off, congrats!

      Secondly, if things continue to go down hill, make sure you set hard limits or just leave right then and there.

      1. Sarah*

        Thanks, Mike! Today she asked me to attend a Saturday retreat for a local funder. What sense would this make? I leave in 2 weeks! I told her no.

  10. dejavu2*

    Glad to see “not getting angry” is top of the list. I’ve only ever left one professional job where my manager didn’t wig out on me when I gave notice, and that was a temporary job where it was obvious that I would be seeking full time employment elsewhere. I’ve been screamed at, insulted, and even physically attacked (didn’t work out my notice period on that one…). I mean, it’s nice to have my work quality validated and all, but good lord, the craziest people end up as supervisors.

  11. MR*

    No. 5 is quite important. As I peruse job postings, I’m always amazed at the number of them that have spelling, grammatical and formatting errors. It makes me think that those were just copied and pasted from the prior time the position was open and whoever was doing the hiring was too lazy to read it over prior to posting. It certainly doesn’t speak well for the organization when that type of stuff happens.

  12. Victoria Nonprofit*

    How do these recommendations apply when someone resigns with little or no notice?

    In my last role, an AmeriCorps member quit with no notice (as in, she told me at 9:00 that she would be leaving early that day and not coming back). It was SO frustrating. Until then, she’d been very open with me about the struggles she was having living on the tiny AmeriCorps stipend and I’d worked with her on strategies to make it work. So while I knew she was struggling, the actual fact of her departure was out of the blue and (seemingly) out of character.

    What I did: Ran the gamut from good cop (trying to help her make it work) to bad cop (expressing my frustration that she was leaving us in the lurch – big time! you can’t bring on a new VISTA in the middle of the year, so we had that position empty for several months).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think that’s the right approach with someone who gives no notice, particularly with someone newer to the workforce (as I’m assuming an AmeriCorps volunteer was).

      With someone more experienced, I might be inclined not to try to change their mind, since I’d figure that even if they did, I wouldn’t be able to rely on something similar happening again in the future.

    2. Jessa*

      Yeh that’s kind of not on, to do that. Just leave on an assignment where you can’t be replaced that easily.

  13. rw*

    Maybe I’m odd, but I keep a running letter of recommendation and transition plan for each employee. I update the letters after each major project or accomplishment, and I update the transition plan whenever employees’ responsibilities change. Of course, I don’t present them on the spot when employees tells me they’re leaving. I wait a few days on the letter, and I make out an initial transition plan with the employee then compare it to my pre-made one.

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