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Advice from a Chief People Officer: Should You Fight For an Employee Who Wants to Leave?

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As the war for talent becomes even more fierce, it’s a sinking feeling to find out one of the rising stars wants out. After all, the single most valuable resource at any company is its people, and after losing one of your best it can take an average of 6.2 months to get someone new up to speed.

Turnover can mean more than just a loss in productivity. Sometimes the loss of a crucial team member can have others re-thinking their situation and start that dreaded employee churn. With that in mind, here are a few tips to help you decide whether you should fight for an employee who wants to leave.

Assess the Situation: Why Do They Want to Leave?

There are a never-ending number of reasons (from deeply personal to strictly professional) that a star employee may want to leave. If you’re keen on convincing them to stay onboard, then it’s your job to figure out what it is and whether the situation can be salvaged.

If the reason is personal, such as the employee taking time off to pursue a passion or spending time with their kids, it’s likely too late for your intervention to change their mind. But if the reason is based more on their working conditions, like uncertainty about their advancement opportunities at the company or frustration with work-life balance, then you have some options to perhaps make them reconsider.

Not everyone aspires to become a manager or supervisor, so lay out a professional growth plan to let them know what other promotion opportunities are out there. If they are worried about work-life balance and family responsibilities, offer them the ability to make their own hours and telecommute. If a certain manager is the problem, see if they’d be willing to switch teams to curb the conflict. It will not only show that you trust and value them, but also improve their attitude and even increase their productivity.

Make a Counter Offer, If You Think They Want One

Inevitably, many (if not most) employee departures come down to better pay or a shiny new job title.

Years ago, I had an employee leave our team. It wasn’t for more money immediately but that the growth trajectory and prospects of more money at another company was going to come faster and more of it.  I couldn’t really disagree with them as their growth trajectory at our company was going to be at a certain slope and their other offer was going to be much steeper etc.  Was was underneath it was growth trajectory, money was just one component of that growth matching them better at the other company.

When it comes to compensation, you have more than one chance to get right. If the employee has come to you and tells you about the competing offer before officially signing over their resignation, chances are good they might be looking to you for a reason to stay.

If this is someone you really don’t want to see go, see what you can do in the way of a counter-offer. Sometimes it’s about the actual dollar figure while other times it’s about feeling valued and appreciated—or keeping up with their peers. If it’s about the title, there is usually some compromise you can make, whether now or down the line.

Know When to Let Go

Of course we want to bring in the best talent and retain it, but here’s the ugly truth: Top performers don’t just work hard for your company, they work hard to better themselves too.

Their hopes and dreams may not be limited to what your company can offer, and there is no reason to take it personally. Perhaps they’re interested in starting their own business, or looking to change career paths completely. It’s important to know when you should let go and let them follow their own motivations.

This happened to me recently, when one of my favorite people in our HR department told me she was leaving the company. Turns out, she likes working with and helping people so much that she’s decided to go to nursing school. Once she said that, everything clicked, and I knew as much as I wanted her to stay, it was time to let her go pursue her passion. I always say what we do in HR often isn’t saving lives (though it is saving companies), so I guess she took that too literally and decided to go do the real thing!

Support Your Employees and Keep in Touch

Although emotions might be running high when a beloved worker decides to leave the company, remember that you and the company will eventually get along without them.

Don’t bad-mouth them or their new employer, as that’s a surefire way to burn bridges (and leaves you looking extra unprofessional). After all, people talk—and heat of the moment gossip has a way of finding it’s way back to you. Ultimately, no one wants to work with someone that they don’t believe is interested in their well being and professional growth.

Wish them well (and actually mean it), letting them know they’re always welcome to come back. Maintain those connections by keeping in touch over email and grabbing the occasional coffee or lunch. The moment a talented employee leaves the company is the moment you start recruiting them all over again.

When an employee leaves, we partner with the manager to decide whether or not to campaign for them to stay—or to live and let live. But it’s important to remember—before someone hands in their resignation—that the best defense is always a good offense. So get proactive about keeping employees engaged before they get bored and start looking for greener pastures. Giving employees a voice, creating a culture of praise and recognition, and giving them freedom and ownership over their work can go a long way to building a company that people never want to leave. Or at least not for the next few years.


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