What to do when a staff member resigns

Maybe you suspected something wasn’t quite right. Or maybe it was a total shock.

Whatever the scenario, a sudden resignation and the weeks that follow can be a disruptive time for any organization, especially close-knit not-for-profits. And it can be particularly difficult for management and HR, as you try to juggle the demands of recruitment while minimizing the impact on other staff. But despite the challenges, this period also presents a valuable opportunity for learning and growth.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review offers some expert advice on how to effectively manage an abrupt resignation, and the transition period that follows. Here are our key takeaways for NFP-sector organizations to guide you through the process:

1. When you first get the news

Keep your emotions in check. You might feel shocked or angry or disappointed, but remaining professional is crucial. In the Australian NFP sector, people often move between similar organizations, so even if someone is leaving today, there’s some likelihood that you might end up working with them in some capacity in the future. So it’s important to maintain your relationship – ask the staff member about their future plans, and keep the tone warm and friendly.

This conversation is also a good opportunity to find out why the staff member decided to resign. Maybe it was simply a better offer. Or maybe it was a problem that can you can actually solve reasonably simply – for example a change in their personal circumstances could be accommodated by by offering more flexibility, or an unpaid leave of absence.

“You can make the suggestions because the employee might not have thought about it before,” says Anat Lechner, a clinical Associate Professor of management and organizations at NYU Stern. If the person decided to quit due to job dissatisfaction, make sure you note any issues that might also be affecting other staff, and consider how these can be improved in future.

If your team member is leaving for another job offer, you might consider a counter-offer – either financial, or the offer of a different role. However experts advise caution on taking this path. At this point, the person has made the decision to leave and it can be hard to get out of that headspace. A better option can be maintaining the relationship and seeing if “re-recruitment” becomes an option a year or so down the track.

You’ll also need to be clear on what’s expected from the staff member now they’ve resigned and what the organization’s general requirements are for staff resignations.

In particular – discuss the notice period. An employee’s award, employment contract or enterprise agreement will specify the minimum notice period they must give. But depending on their reasons for leaving, your staff member may be able to offer you some extra time beyond the requirements of their employment contract. This can help significantly by reducing the gap until a replacement can be found for their role.

Negotiate, but “don’t expect flexibility” as they may already have another start date, says Priscilla Claman, president of consulting firm Career Strategies.

2. During the notice period

Work with the departing staff member to find the best way to communicate the news to the rest of your team. Whether you make an announcement at a team meeting, or someone in management speaks to each team member individually, discuss how to communicate the departure in a way that is honest, open and shows that you’re working hard to make the transition as smooth as possible for everyone.

Make a hiring plan as soon as possible. You might advertise the job, or consider an internal promotion. Claman explains, “this could be a chance for someone to expand and grow” into the role. It’s also worth asking other staff for input on the skills, experience and qualities they think are needed for the position, and if they know anyone who might be suitable.

In an ideal world, the departing staff member would be around long enough to pass their skills on to their successor. A more likely scenario, however, is that you’ll need to record handover knowledge, or transfer knowledge to your current team. Lechner points out that the biggest challenge is transferring “the sticky knowledge – the things an employee knows that can’t necessarily be shown on an Excel spreadsheet”.

It’s also important to acknowledge capacity issues for remaining staff during the transition period, but emphasise that this won’t be forever. In fact, this can also be an opportunity for other staff to develop and grow into new areas – for example, you can ask staff if there’s an area of the departing person’s role that they’d like to learn more about, and ensure this knowledge transfer happens before they leave.

Finally, consider doing an exit interview with the departing employee. Even if what they have to say is difficult to hear – or if you think their reasons for leaving are unfair or wrong – they may still have valuable insights into how to improve your organization’s processes or culture that remaining staff might be much less willing to be honest about.

Bear in mind that you or the direct manager of the person leaving might not be the best person to conduct the exit interview. Perhaps someone neutral (e.g another Manager or HR representative) will put the interviewee at ease and provide you with more valuable information.

3. The last day… and beyond

When your staff member’s last day comes around, don’t forget to celebrate. Whether it’s simply cake at morning tea or a night out, get your team together to thank the person leaving and wish them well. And this isn’t just about the person who’s leaving – it’s about the people staying, says Claman. “You are rewarding the people for whom it’s going to be a difficult few weeks”.

Finally, make sure to take time to reflect on what you’ve learnt through this period. A manager who’s in touch with her or his team should never be “truly surprised” when a team member decides to leave, says Claman.

“As manager, you need to be aware of people’s interests and needs. You should know what they want to do. And you should be able to tell when someone is tired of her job, has aged out of it, is not engaged, or has life changes afoot — like a move or a spouse transfer — that make a resignation likely.”

Have you ever had a staff member resign suddenly? What tips do you have on how to best handle these situations?

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