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What an Employee Exit Reveals

July 02,2013

“I'd rather be respected than liked” -- a leadership lesson I've heard from many sources. But does it have to be one or the other? I like who we employ and I like being liked back. It makes each day of coming to work better for everyone and is an implicit part of building a workforce that is mission-driven. And a mission-driven organization is an implicit part of building a corporate brand that people believe in.

An employer / employee relationship that includes both respect and good feeling is better than one that includes one or the other. And if it’s not mutual, it’s not real. I submit that the truest litmus test of the strength of an employer / employee relationship is how it ends. Here's what an employee exit reveals.

Hurt. Resentment. Regret. All three are emotions I’ve experienced at getting the news from a team member that s/he is giving notice. What sign of weakness is this to other team members and clients? What kind of interruption is this going to cause the business? Why is this person rejecting me, our company and this opportunity?

But it doesn’t have to be like that. Last week, a dear team member let me know that she would be moving on in her career. She started at Finch Brands as an intern and developed here as a full time team member for 6 years. Throughout that time, she grew immeasurably in confidence, aptitude and responsibility.

And it reinforced for me in a powerful way that exits can be joyful rather than painful. While we will sorely miss her, she is moving on to a great and different opportunity to put to good use all she learned here – an opportunity to run marketing for a non-profit client for whom we did work several years ago. Their mission is land conservation, which dovetails beautifully with who she is and what she cares about. And all I felt at hearing the news was pride, warmth and excitement for her.

Businesses should aspire to good exits with team members on the sole basis that it is good for humanity.  The fact that it is good business, however, is quite convenient! Here are three things I’ve learned it takes:

1. Defusing the natural tension between employer and employee carefully and equitably throughout the tenure. Neither employee nor employer should feel like s/he got the short end of the stick. Both should feel they pushed and got pushed just enough. That leads not only to strong relationships during a team member’s tenure, but makes exits far more positive.

2. Managing team members to deliver the most while perpetually mitigating the risk of losing them, such that when the end comes – which hopefully is well down the road – there is no need to panic. Exits are often made difficult due to employer response, which can spring not from anything personal, but from the added stress of a search one didn’t see coming.

3. Valuing a team member's life outside the workplace, without getting involved to the point that it undermines rational decision-making. Trust and goodwill will motivate each party to soften the blow for the other when it’s time to part ways.

We spend so much time and invest so much of ourselves in our careers – and the relationship with an employer is just as sensitive as any personal relationship. It is affirming and comfortable for all if such relationships can be open, caring and mutually beneficial. Whether or not both sides achieve these goals is often best revealed when it is time for a team member to move on. In this situation and in general, I’m proud of the company we have and the people who comprise it.

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Daniel Erlbaum, CEO

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