Saying goodbye to great staff is never easy. And when the person leaving has ‘deep smarts’ – that is, mission-critical, experienced-based knowledge – it can be a particularly difficult blow.
How you ‘offboard’ your departing staff can influence whether your organisation moves ahead smoothly or flounders in their absence.
An exit interview is essential, but there’s so much else you should do. So what’s the right approach? Who should be involved? How should the process look? And how do you motivate the departing staff member to participate?
With ideas from this article on the Harvard Business Review site, here are seven essential steps to help you answer those questions and offboard your staff the right way:
1. Create a plan
First, develop a plan for what knowledge you need to retain from the departing staff member, and how you’ll go about doing this, including a timeline for when it needs to be achieved by.
Usually, staff members need to give a month’s notice before leaving, which allows you time to start the search for a qualified replacement. If they don’t have another job lined up immediately, you might be able to negotiate a longer notice period. This would allow you a longer recruitment period, or potentially some overlap between the former and new staff member, which could facilitate some direct handover.
Next, you and the departing staff member should work together to determine the scope of information that needs to be transferred. How much of their knowledge has been already documented – and what’s missing? Allow the answer to this question guide the creation of a learning plan for others in your team and/or the person’s successor, as well as how much time you’ll need to implement it.
2. Motivate the expert
Once you have a plan, you need to encourage the staff member in question to actually share their knowledge. If they’re unhappy with the organisation, convincing them to do so could prove difficult.
If they’re seemingly happy but uncooperative, it could simply be that they’re modest, unaware of the scope of their expertise, or unsure of how to teach others what they know. In these cases, it’s your job to provide the structures that facilitate the transfer of knowledge.
3. Create a ‘mini-apprenticeship’
If you have the luxury of a few months in which to conduct your offboarding, pair the departing staff member with their successor for an accelerated apprenticeship-type orientation. Based on the idea that humans better learn by doing, the new staff member can shadow and observe the expert, acquire and practice new skills, and receive feedback on their performance. Then, give the successor a range of tasks they can try on their own to cement the knowledge they gained via observation.
For example, if the departing staff member’s job includes working with external stakeholders, allow them to introduce the replacement to stakeholders in person and watch them in action. After a period, allow the successor to take the lead under the departing staff member’s supervision.
4. Focus on team learning
If, on the other hand, you don’t have much time or haven’t yet identified a successor, consider holding a series of meetings in which the departing staff member shares their experience with colleagues about their handling of key people and problems. Structured as a Q and A-type session and conducted by a capable external facilitator, the goal is to reveal insights into the person’s thought process and help team members absorb this key information – and then draw out any patterns.
Be sure to ask the departing staff member about how they learnt what they know. Which websites do they regularly visit? Who do they talk to? Did they consult others before making certain decisions? What alternatives did they consider?
5. Document selectively
Focus on recording the real essence of the person’s knowledge – not so much on the intricate details. Asking your departing staff member to write a comprehensive manual for how to do their job can be a waste of resources for both them and their successor. They’ll struggle to record everything, and their successor is unlikely to read it all anyway.
Instead, encourage other team members to keep ‘learning logs’ of the person’s knowledge (or do this yourself), selectively recording the real gems of important information that can’t be found elsewhere.
6. Focus on the relationship
The best way to retain a departing staff member’s expertise and ensure their cooperation in the process? Maintain a relationship with them. The departing staff member is valuable, so you’ll want to keep the lines of communication open after they leave – perhaps to ask questions, engage them as a consultant, or even hire them back one day.
To achieve this, make sure you set the right tone in the offboarding process from the start. Don’t accuse them of disloyalty, make them feel bad about leaving, or burn bridges. Even if you don’t work together again, it’s much better for everyone to send a departing staff member off into the world with a really positive final experience than with bad things to say about you or your organisation.
7. Prepare for next time
It’s like that old cliché: by failing to prepare, you’re preparing to fail. Indeed, if your team or your broader organisation doesn’t have any structures or systems in place to retain key knowledge, you could risk losing it altogether when a valued staff member leaves.
For example, the shadowing technique discussed in step three doesn’t have to apply exclusively to the offboarding process. As a manager, you should always encourage staff members to learn from one another – for the less-experienced person it’s an insight into how to get things done well, while for senior staff it’s an opportunity to develop their mentoring and leadership skills.
Though some people might be resistant to transferring their knowledge for fear of being seen as replaceable, your NFP can’t afford to have them hold onto information. To overcome this, consider incentivising the sharing of knowledge through training and coaching by rewarding it with promotion or other benefits.
It can be easy to panic when an instrumental staff member hands in their resignation. But with a planned, considered approach to offboarding, it doesn’t have to be the setback you originally thought it might be.
How does your organisation conduct offboarding? Could you see these suggestions working for you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.