My Best Employee Quit. Now What?

Effective two weeks from today.

A resignation letter is something no manager wants to receive, especially when it comes from a top-performing employee.

“Please accept this letter as formal notification that I am resigning…”

And just like that, the two weeks’ notice countdown begins.

The first time someone on your team quits it may catch you off-guard, and it will almost definitely feel personal. When it’s a top-performing team member, it might also feel like a kick in the gut.

But, recognize that a resignation letter also opens the door to have a conversation, and within that conversation is an opportunity for you to grow as a leader.

If you handle the conversation the right way, I guarantee you will learn something and you might even retain your top performer, after all.

Start at the Beginning

“Take me back to the day when you decided to start looking. What was it that prompted your search?”

The goal here is to ask your employee to set the stage and help you understand exactly when she decided to look elsewhere. What was happening at that time? What frustrations or roadblocks were getting in the way? Was it a single event, or something that built up slowly?

The answers to these questions paint a picture of the exact moment when the employee decided that the downsides of the job outweighed the upsides.

Know What You Can Control

“Was it something about the job, the team, or the company?”

Typically, employees quit jobs for reasons tied to one of three things. Either they are unhappy with the type of work, the team of people around them (including you, boss), or the overall company. Some of these things you may be able to change, while others are entirely out of your control.

For example, if the employee decided to quit because she loathed a certain element of her job, you may be able to assign that work to someone else.

On the other hand, if the employee is disheartened by the overall vision or strategic direction of the company, there’s probably very little, if anything, you can do to change that. In the case of the latter, you should be forthright and transparent that those circumstances are unlikely to change.

Seek to Understand What He/She Values

“How would you rank the following aspects of a job…?”

In my experience, many managers respond to resignations by throwing money at the problem. However, not every employee is motivated by money.

One helpful exercise I have used to understand an employee’s motivations is to ask her to rank what matters most to her in a job, including:

  • The type of work she gets to do
  • The people she gets to work alongside
  • Who she gets to work for
  • The job title she has
  • How well she is compensated
  • The mission of the company

You’ll learn quite a bit about a person’s motivations by how they answer this question. Further, it will help you understand what you may or may not be able to tweak to appeal to those motivations if the employee were to remain at the company.

Generally, I’m not a huge fan of counteroffers. Many have argued that employees shouldn’t ever entertain a counteroffer based on the idea that the company ‘only valued you once you decided to leave.’ I think that argument gets it wrong. Sometimes.

If the employee has given you the gift of expressing her dissatisfaction in the past and you haven’t done anything about it, then I agree. Frankly, in that case, you have no business extending a counteroffer, and doing so is borderline disrespectful.

But, more often than not, the manager doesn’t know an employee is unhappy until the resignation letter is signed, sealed, and delivered to his/her desk. Most employees don’t openly tell their boss what they’re unhappy with until they have one foot out the door. Is that a sign of a slightly ineffective leader? It could be. But, more on that another time.

Make the Ask

“Is there anything that we can change that would make you want to stay?”

Create the space for the employee to tell you what ideal scenario would eliminate their desire to leave the organization. If it’s more money, how much? If it’s a higher title, which one?

Don’t make any promises, but listen and take note of what it would take. Some requests might be possible, while others will not be. At this point, all you are doing is gathering information.

Accept the Outcome

In some cases, a counteroffer will be possible and may make sense. Some employees may decide to stay based on the changing circumstances you agree to as part of that. The key here is to execute those changes. If you don’t, I can almost guarantee that you’ll find yourself on the receiving end of a subsequent resignation letter within six months.

Other employees will have definitively made up their minds, and there won’t be anything you can do to change them. In that case, accept the fact that they are leaving.

Either way, respect the employee’s decision and voice genuine appreciation for their willingness to engage in a transparent conversation with you. Embrace the feedback with grace, even if that feedback is critical of you as the team leader.

No matter the outcome, you will undoubtedly learn something to take forward with you on your never-ending leadership journey.

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