how to recover when your best employee quits

If your top performer walked into your office today and said she’d accepted another job, would you know what to do to keep your team on track?

Losing a key team member can test even the strongest team – but you need to be prepared for it. Here’s what to do if you get the bad news from a valuable team member.

In most cases, resist making a counteroffer. In most cases, employers make counteroffers in a moment of panic, but they generally don’t work out well in the long run. That’s because in most cases, it wasn’t just money that drove the employee to start looking; there are usually other factors, like feeling unchallenged by the work or not being well matched with a manager or the culture, and those won’t change – meaning that the dissatisfaction is likely to come back once the glow of the counteroffer wears off.

Make good use of the person’s remaining time. Too often when someone resigns, employers squander the person’s last few weeks in the role, by just letting the person continue on as if it’s business as usual. Instead, be vigilant about using their remaining time to download key information and extract their insight and advice on the responsibilities they’re leaving behind. This person knows the secrets of success in the role they’re leaving – understanding those secrets will help you hire the right replacement and set them up for success in the role too.

Involve the departing employee in recruiting for the new role. The person will probably be gone by the time you’re conducting interviews, but before they leave, pick their brain about who they think should fill their shoes.  They may recommend someone already working for you, or might have an outside contact who they think would be great at  the job. If nothing else, they’ll likely have strong opinions about the type of person who would excel in the role (and maybe how to find them), and that’s valuable for you to hear.

Think about whether there’s an opportunity to seize here. Is there a more junior rock star already on your team who’s ready for the role? Is there restructuring of the role or responsibilities that would make sense to do before hiring a new person? As great as your existing employee was, are there things you wished she’d done differently, and is it worth specifically seeking out those thing in a replacement?

Expect that other staff may be nervous. If the departing employee has been handling key work or is known for being particularly outstanding in the role, other staff members may be anxious about what will happen next. Will a replacement ever be as good? What will the transition look like? Who will handle X until someone new is up to speed? Reassure people that while there might be some bumps in the road, overall you’re confident that thing will be fine – and share the plan for moving forward that’s giving you that confidence.

Reflect on any lessons learned. If you’d spotted the signs earlier, was there anything you could have done differently to keep the employee? For example, if the person left because of frustrations with pay or management, are there changes you can make in those areas to prevent losing other talented employees in the future?

{ 59 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous Educator*

    Is there an amendment to the counteroffer rule if it’s not about money? For example, I left a company once for primarily geographic reasons, and I let my manager and the president of the company know I was leaving many months beforehand. They were aware of my search process. Pretty close to the end, the president asked if I’d consider staying with the company if I could work remotely (and it was one of those places were no one was allowed to work remotely). I didn’t end up taking up the counteroffer, but in that situation, I don’t see any shame in the president making the counteroffer, and I don’t think there would have been anything wrong if I’d taken the counteroffer.

    1. Sascha*

      I think that would be fine. I once left a job because it didn’t offer health insurance. I loved the work and my coworkers, so if they had offered me health insurance I would have stayed.

    2. TCO*

      I don’t think there’s any problem with accepting a counteroffer in that situation, if the counteroffer really and truly fixes your only/main complaint about your workplace. For instance, when I left one job it was 90% due to the low pay–other than that I truly was happy there. Had they offered me more money, I would have happily stayed and not regretted it. Fortunately I had a great relationship with my boss; she knew that I was looking and she knew why. They had opportunities to give me a raise but weren’t able to do it, and so there wasn’t any panicked counteroffer when I resigned.

    3. OfficePrincess*

      I think the main thing is don’t make a counteroffer that’s just shiny and pretty. If you can address the real issue behind the choice to leave, fantastic, give it a try. But if you’re just throwing out money or a perk in hopes that they’ll forget why they wanted to leave then it’s not going to work.

    4. LadyMountaineer*

      I guess my concern about that would be “when it was inconvenient for me you wouldn’t fix it and now that it’s inconvenient for you then you’re willing to do something about it.”

      I was recently promoted within my organization but at a different office. I would have stayed with Old Office but they refused to do a pay equity analysis between myself and a new (male) software developer. Once I accepted the promotion (about 2 weeks after their decision) Old Office realized it was going to cost them a helluva lot more to let me go than to just adjust my pay by the $10k requested. I knew if I stayed I would always feel undervalued and I would worry every time they hired a new dev that they valued the new guy over me even though I have a lot to offer.

      Side note: I love the new gig and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I knew the new office was going to be good but I didn’t know it was going to be amazing.

      1. Anonymous Educator*

        I guess my concern about that would be “when it was inconvenient for me you wouldn’t fix it and now that it’s inconvenient for you then you’re willing to do something about it.”

        That’s a good way of putting it.

        1. Artemesia*

          This. There are some professions where you only get the big bucks if you have an offer — Academia is one of those and generally it is fine to accept the counter offer (and of course this means that when you are recruiting you always have to worry that the candidates are just trying to bolster their own positions rather than actually moving. Most places though never trust someone they had to counter offer to keep and it doesn’t go well.

        2. Annonymouse*

          A counter offer only counts if
          A) you mean it
          B) you can do it
          C) it fixes the reason they’re leaving

          My nightmare boss made a counter offer and promised the moon (Fridays and Tuesday’s off because I worked Saturday, being able to work remotely, more autonomy.)

          He delivered more work, less hours and a wage cut. (My other offer fell through and that’s why I stayed for the record – I wasn’t swayed by this new offer )

          When I left 3 months later it took TWO people to replace me, they lost 20 – 30% of their clients and the events they run for their clients have not run smoothly or had adequate stock ever since I left.

          Treat your rock stars right and they’ll give you performances of a lifetime.

      2. Kyrielle*

        I think it depends in part on what the issue is, and when they were aware of it. Setting up to pay someone located in another state or country, if they didn’t already have an office there, could require payroll/HR/tax/law due diligence, and they could’ve started on it as soon as they became aware but simply not had it finalized in time to make the counteroffer sooner.

        In your case, they looked at it and declined to do it, then changed their minds when you were leaving – that’s really clear-cut, and I wouldn’t take that counter either.

    5. BRR*

      I think there are certain (and I might even go so far as to say rare) exceptions to the counter offer role and this to me is one of them.

  2. The Other Dawn*

    I just lost my rock star. I was nervous at first, since this person pumped out accurate work at blinding speed like nobody’s business, but things have gone well. We have a new person starting soon!

    Someone in another department asked me if I made a counteroffer and I said no and stated the reasons (I thought back to my AAM training!). The person wanted to move up quickly and we just don’t have a lot of opportunity in our department; my boss has been here 35 years, I just got here and love it, and my senior person is older, loves it here, and doesn’t plan on leaving. So, there’s no where to go except to other departments, which don’t have much opportunity right now, either.

    I got as much info from her before she left, had her write up procedures we hadn’t got to yet, and had her make as big a dent as possible in the daily workflow in order to gives us a little cushion (we have regulatory deadlines). We made a plan for getting stuff done, and it’s working.

    1. T*

      I think it’s really tough to retain people who are dead set on moving up quickly. Almost no organization has that much room for growth so leaving is inevitable. We lost a rock star a couple of years ago and have honestly never recovered but I still think it was wise to not make a counter. This is the perfect example of throwing money at someone just to make them stay another six months.

  3. TootsNYC*

    If you have one person, or even two people, whose departure is truly going to be a blow to you, you need to have substitutes in the back of your mind always.

    I consider that I am always recruiting. Every now and then, I consider, “what will I do if my right hand quits? Who could I get How would I cope in the interim?”

    It’s part of being a manager.

    I’ve never been in a position in which I’d be willing to make a counteroffer; fortunately, I know that there are lots of really good people out there, and I’m of the opinion that people should move around a little bit.

    1. SevenSixOne*

      Absolutely. Not only could any one of your employees put in their notice at any moment, but even the ones who aren’t leaving for good still might leave for a long time if they get sick or injured or whatever (and might not be able to do everything they used to once they return!).

    2. STJ*

      Agreed. If you can’t handle the loss of a few key players, you don’t have enough resilience in your team.

      1. AggrAV8ed Tech*

        Sounds like my department, actually. I’ve been the constant here for the past 16 years with a revolving door of colleagues (actually, “colleague”, since it’s a two-person office) and when I leave, this department is going to be in serious trouble if my manager doesn’t eventually hire a second competent person who’s in it for the long haul.

    3. De Minimis*

      Totally true. I’ve never understood workplaces where they make the assumption that people are going to be there indefinitely. Cross train or at least have a plan for coverage. My last job I started getting flak about taking vacation for longer than a week because they didn’t know what to do in my absence. I asked what they did in the past when my predecessor went on leave, and was told “She was never absent for long periods.”

  4. No Name*

    My company just lost 2 of the top performers out of 25 staff. Because they dropped group health insurance.

    Companies should have backup staff plans for when a top performer leaves.

    1. AnonInSC*

      My guess is that they are only the first 2 to leave….in my office EVERYONE would be looking for a new job.

  5. Ann O'Nemity*

    One challenge I face is that I can rarely rehire at the same level that the departing employee was at. Does anyone else run into this? If an employee quits, it’s all too common that the budget for the open position is significantly trimmed (10-20%). This almost always means that I need to hire at a lower level and redistribute some of the workload to the rest of the team. The most painful example I can think of is when an experienced manager left and was ultimately replaced with a part-time intern. Of course, the intern wasn’t responsible for doing the manager’s job, but it did mean some serious reshuffling and re-prioritizing of the entire team’s workload.

    1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*


      If an employee is grossly underpaid – then it’s easier to find a replacement (politically) at a higher grade than to make things right with an incumbent.

      Example = Joe makes $40k. He knows he is underpaid. Management knows, too, but won’t admit to it. Management sits on its thumbs. Joe finds a job paying $60k. He gives notice.

      That’s a 50 percent raise! “We can’t do that!!” so Joe leaves. And they post the range for a new hire – from $35-55k – and the new hire asks for $55K, gets $52k which MIGHT have been enough to keep Joe in the fold had they extended it to him before he started looking.

      Funny game management is….

      1. Ann O'Nemity*

        It’s more like the previous employee’s salary was $50k, but I only have $40k for refilling the position.

        1. AcademiaNut*

          I think that’s not uncommon in a recession, or during periods of government budget cuts. And yeah, you’re kind of stuck – either the job will go unfilled, or they’ll hire people who really need work, but will leave as soon as they can reasonably get a better salary (and the better the employee, the faster they can leave), or you’ll hire at a lower grade, spread the work around, increase the workload of the other employees (without any raise or promotion) and encourage *them* to head off to greener pastures.

          I think you can get away with it for a while when the job market is really tight, but you can’t do it forever.

          The academic equivalent is having a senior tenured professor retire, and instead of hiring a junior tenure-track professor, they replace their teaching load with a year by year contract position that has no job security, significantly lower pay, and minimal benefits.

    2. wow*

      Wow, and I thought our downgrading was horrible! They’ll drop a position two grades, and we’re already not competitive to the private sector. And we leave so many positions unfilled becasue no qualified candidates want to take our pay + constant risk of government shutdown.

    3. Ad Astra*

      Hmm, that makes me wonder if you work in news… and I’m only half kidding. ;)

      I would have guessed that in most situations you have to spend a little more to hire a new employee with comparable skills and experience, unless your company is really good about giving raises for good performance and keeping up with COLA.

    4. Ummagumma*

      This is common I think. We just lost two senior people on the team – a Sr. guy and a Director. They’ve replacing them both with an entry level person and a person in our china office, also at an entry level. The rest of the workload is being spread around those of us that remain on the small team. :(

  6. K5280*

    I have a staff of 3 in a company of 1o (and that’s stretching it to include PT and consultants) and in the same week, my top performer quit to dedicate herself to her family and another went out on extended medical leave. We managed to get the top performer to stay until the medical situation is resolved and I come back from a vacation in a month but it’s a serious blow. I’m looking at it as an opportunity to restructure and start fresh but it’s difficult with such a tiny company to say the least.

    1. The Other Dawn*

      “I’m looking at it as an opportunity to restructure and start fresh”

      That’s how I see it when someone like that leaves. It’s an opportunity to fine-tune everything and try something different. It also gets other team members involved in things they haven’t had exposure to, and helps the manager see what’s really going on; being in the weeds on occasion is a good thing for a manger, I believe.

  7. Raia*

    We are just now recovering from a rockstar who left 3 months ago, and was finally truly replaced. I was the interim for the role in those 3 months. The manager was not well prepared for her to leave, even though everyone knew there was some tension, and now the manager resents the rockstar more than ever.

    For me, it doesn’t make sense at all to resent the rockstar, especially if you work in the same industry AND region. You will see each other again… It is worth sustaining/recreating a positive relationship in order to keep doors open in the future, and keep resentment from all sides to a minimum. So, that’s the attitude I’ve kept, in opposition of the one my manager has… Good thing I’m leaving soon too!

  8. Special Snowflake*

    When good people quit, our management’s strategy is to congratulate that person, wish them well, hold a farewell drinks gathering for them, and most importantly, tell them the door is always open should things not work out. In other words, they don’t take it personally and they let people go without rancor. You would be amazed how many of these good people actually do return, having experienced life “on the other side”, and realizing the grass is not always greener.

    1. Mike C.*

      What an incredibly mature attitude for have!

      And let me guess, when those folks do come back, they also come back better than they left, correct?

      1. Special Snowflake*

        They certainly come back less jaded and refreshed, having had a change of scene. It’s not publicly acknowledged, but I have an inside track on the fact that if they left for money, they will usually come back to a raise, if not a direct match to what the second company was paying.

  9. Jerzy*

    The last job I left was with the government. I hadn’t actually been looking, but an opportunity arose that offered to cut my commute in half, increase my pay by 50%, and provide more room for advancement. Even though I loved my government job, and practically ran the work of my division, these were things I just could pass up, and my former boss (being subject to government limitations) could only offer me a 15% pay increase from what was my salary.

    Since then, my old boss has reached out asking if there was any way I would come back. Their workload has increased and he knows I’d be an asset to the team. I told him I couldn’t take less than what my current job pays, and that traveling 50 miles each way everyday was hard to deal with. I added that I didn’t want to end up in another position that offered no authority or room for advancement.

    He’s actually working on putting an offer together that would include working in a field office a couple days a week and with a better title and even slightly MORE than what I’m making now. He’s such an awesome guy that if he pulls this off, I’d go back in a heartbeat!

  10. Lia*

    I was the rock star at a previous job. I gave six week’s notice (4 was required but I negotiated it to 6 to give the previous job more time since I was the only staffer who did my particular tasks). They did try to lure me back twice — once when it took 6 months to fill my role and they were despairing of hiring anyone, and then again a year later when that replacement bailed and they were faced with another search. I turned them down both times, because it was really more about the culture and lack of advancement there that led me to leave, not about the money (though they did underpay me!).

    I think when you have rock stars, losing them is just going to happen most of the time. Other places will try to lure them, or they’ll happen into opportunities, even if they don’t go out and look for a job.

  11. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    AAM is generally following a track – “perform damage assessment, and tell the employee to ‘have a nice life’.”

    If I interpret that — and GO FORWARD and be more preventive the next time.

    If it’s an easily fixable situation – you have very little to lose by fixing the problem and trying to go forward.

    If the person has “dropped matches” indicating that there are problems and you chose to ignore them, then, yeah, damage control/don’t let the door hit your … is maybe the only way to go – distasteful as it is.

    Sometimes it’s money – and that is reparable – but management has to eat a little humble pie, and also may be on edge because they have

    a) dared the guy to test his market value, and he did and
    b) made him more marketable, ironically, with the counter and
    c) if he really wants to go – he now has more time to seek a better position.

    On the other hand – if the employee feels that the bosses went “to the wall” for him to keep him, it might instill or restore loyalty. It depends on the individual – the job – and, attitudes of all going forward.

  12. Brett*

    The problem with a counter-offer is that it does not fix the structural problem of organization pay. I live comfortably with my pay, even though we pay way below the industry median.

    But that also means that we cannot retain my talented co-workers; and I end up with their work when they leave. And means that, when they leave, we are unable to hire anyone from outside. Our only chance is to hire someone underqualified into a lower grade position and hope to train them up without them leaving once have more marketable skills.

    My last straw here was when we found an under-experienced rockstar and she trained herself up into a top performer and a promotion to full grade in less than 2 years… and then they lowballed her when she was promoted to 20% less than we were already offering outside entry-level hires at the same grade. That was when I knew that even if I received a raise tomorrow to market median, the organization-wide pay issues were insurmountably damaging.

  13. Fuzzyfuzz*

    Do NOT do this: When my former superstar coworker left, my boss wouldn’t stop telling people how it was bad for our team and for our organization. Not great for morale and honestly not even true–she was middle to lower management in an organization of over 250 people. He’s saying the same thing now that I’m about ready to head out on parental leave, which isn’t a superb way to project leadership.

    1. Liz*

      It could be worse — one of my colleagues is about to leave, and our boss has been telling clients that she’s just turned 75 and is retiring.

      Departing colleague is 50, and is going travelling, but the boss trouble coping with resignations. She’s worked at the same organisation all her life, why doesn’t everyone else?

  14. QualityControlFreak*

    Wow, this is timely. I THINK my organization wants to keep me, but unless they decide to actually MANAGE – i.e., rope in the slacker and quit expecting me to catch and fix their mistakes when they ARE here and just do it all for them when they’re not (which is a LOT), I’m afraid that’s not going to happen. I love the work, pay and benefits are good, but this has been going on as long as I’ve been here. I’m in BEC mode at this point, and I do have options. So, yeah. Hope the boss reads AAM!

    1. checkerboard*

      I don’t know what BEC mode is, but are you me? I nodded the entire way through this. My “slacker” is such a time sink that it’s easier and faster to do their work (when they’re not here), than to catch and try to convince them to fix their mistakes.

      1. QualityControlFreak*

        Hee hee, that’s Bitch Eating Crackers mode. Yes, it is much faster to just fix it myself. I’m just not willing to keep doing her job for her, unless her salary comes with it.

    2. Windchime*

      The sad thing is……that slacker also works at your next job. And your next one. There is one everywhere, and for some reason they are always tolerated WAY past what seems reasonable to those of us working our butts off in the trenches.

      1. QualityControlFreak*

        This is true. But I have worked places where they weren’t tolerated. I had hoped this would be my last job and that I could retire from this place. But I have options, so … we’ll see.

  15. Workfromhome*

    I’ll tell you what NOT to do when your of your rockstars leave.
    Do not take the overflow from the vacant position or from the fact that the replacement can’t do what the rockstar did and dump it on the remaining rockstars or budding rockstars.

    Its a sure fire way to drive the rest of the great people out until you have nothing left but the people who are not good enough to find another job. Most companies are short staffed and depend on these “rockstars” to do the work of 2 or 3. They can manage it for a little while becuase they are rockstars. But once they see that their workload will simply continue to be double or triple for infinity with no real raise or promotion they leave.

    1. B*

      Oh how I agree with this. We had a bunch leave, they put all of the work on the rockstars, and are wondering why we are all burntout, unhappy, and not performing as well. I am well on my way to searching for something else.

    2. AvonLady Barksdale*

      I so agree with this. I wasn’t exactly a rockstar at my old job, but I was damn good and I had really diversified skills. Once they finally hired my replacement (3 months later) I kept hearing about how she didn’t “replace” me because she was incapable of doing half of my job and she refused to learn. So the woman who used to report to me, who wanted to focus on one area of the business, kept getting grunt work dumped on her because her new boss couldn’t hack it. She (my former report) started looking as soon as she could– and I helped her as much as I could. It was a rough situation for her and could have been avoided if they had actually listened to some of the recommendations I made when I left.

  16. Not Karen*

    When I put in my notice, my (now previous) manager asked if there was anything they could do to convince me to stay. I said no, but I wonder what they might have been willing to offer.

  17. jesicka309*

    I love the advice about the restructure/re-evaluation. My team was known as a ‘rock star’ team of three, but due to the company structure, there was no room to progress. When my rock star part time manager left, I asked about a restructure to perhaps redistribute some of the work between me and my co-worker (to give us a semblance of progression) and potentially hiring someone at a lower level to replace our manager. I was told ‘it’s too late, we’ve already advertised the role’ and they hired a full time manager to fill a part time role.
    My co-worker (rockstar who was chronically underworked because she was so damn efficient) quit about 2 months after our new manager started. She recommended that her role be filled by a part timer and to give me some of the overflow work (again, some progression). They decided against and just refilled her role, whilst keeping mine the same.
    I’m now looking for a new job, as the company has shown that they’re really inflexible when it comes to evaluating opportunities to change. Sure, they can’t promote me, but they’re not maximising the opportunities to give anyone progression, and are just hoping so damn badly that I don’t leave that they’re throwing money at me. While that’s nice, I’d prefer they had taken the two recent opportunities to re-evaluate our team’s needs, as I’m after progression more than money.

  18. Jim*

    People resign? Too bad.

    At Will Employment.

    It’s a two-way street. Pardon me if I don’t have any sympathy for employers who treat people like disposable commodities.

  19. mel*

    How Not to “Recover”:

    Step 1: First, ensure that you’re ALWAYS in a state of crisis; keep your staffing hours cut so cheaply that if one person is sick, the whole place falls apart.

    Step 2: One of your near-decade-long top performers finally lands a better job. Don’t let this stop you from approving 2-month vacations, though! It’s okay if literally ONE PERSON runs back and forth and runs the entire business all day long. Make sure they do a little mandatory (but at regular wage) overtime as “thanks” for their hard work.

    Step 3: Hire slowly and indescriminately. There’s a bounty of teenagers who have never worked before and yet require no training. Just throw them into this desperate fray and act like it’s business as usual. They only last a week to a month, but hey, your harried staff have nothing better to do than to teach a new person the ropes every week, right?

    Step 4: After a YEAR OF THIS, all of your long-term top performers find new work except for the last couple of people who can’t even land a retail job for some unknown reason. Ha! Suckers! Ignore past deals and arrangements – they’ve got nowhere else to go, so enjoy keeping them under your thumb. Hello cheap labor!

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