Employers who have invested significant resources in an employee can feel let down when that person resigns, but it's important to maintain composure and plan your next steps.
By James Dunn
Don’t take it personally. A resignation may throw your plans into disarray and leave you wondering why you invested so much time in someone who didn’t value it, but there are good reasons to thank the person for their service and plan a farewell.
While every situation is different, a business leader should view a resignation as an opportunity to “live their values”.
This is the advice of Greg Smith, co-founder of HR consultancy Deliberatepractice and author of Career Conversations: How to get the best from your talent pool.
“It can be very disappointing to lose a key member of staff, but, practically, you’ve got to take the emotion out of it and think about enhancing the business values and culture.”
Open communication with a leaving employee is crucial
A resignation can be highly stressful. It can throw the business off kilter, disrupt plans, and there may be pressing organisational aspects.
“You may have to think about how you want that resignation represented in the market, particularly if it is a client-facing role; and you may have to think about how you want to protect the other employees in the team,” Smith says.
“There are practical aspects such as how this resignation is to be communicated, and what is said externally.”
Open communication with your leaving employee is crucial. The person may not wish to disclose where they’re going – and there might be good reasons for that. They could be going into a role where the incumbent doesn’t know they are being replaced. They could be going to a competitor.
“It is vital not to take it personally – people resign all the time – and not to burn bridges,” says Smith.
The simple reason for this, adds Smith, is that your existing workers are watching.
“If someone is going to resign, their close colleagues probably already know, and they are watching critically how that manager reacts. This is how you show how you value the people who work for you.”
The employee farewell function
Should you hold a farewell function for an employee who resigns? Should you make a speech? What are the rules around references? The problem is there are no rules for these sorts of interactions, says employment lawyer Sam Eichenbaum, of law firm Rigby Cooke.
Most employers want to do the right thing by their employee, but they can open themselves to risk. “Quite often, particularly if it is a long-standing employee, the business owners will want to mark their leaving with a speech,” Eichenbaum says.
“If you’re saying, ‘This person has been a really good member of our team, we’re really sorry to see them go, and we wish them well in whatever they’re going to do next’, it’s hard to see how any of that could be a problem. But anytime you’re speaking about someone in public, the risk comes where you get into things that are personal or characteristics that potentially form stereotypes.”
“It can be very disappointing to lose a key member of staff but, practically, you’ve got to take the emotion out of it and think about enhancing the business values and culture.” Greg Smith
In the minefield of the modern workplace, says Eichenbaum, offence can be in the mind of the listener, even when it is not intended – people who believe their remarks are witty or gallant can often get a rude shock at how they may be construed.
“You always need to take your audience into account, because it’s not only the person you’re speaking about who can be offended by things that you say, and offended in a way that they feel they have a right of redress,” he says.
“Even if it is meant in humour, anything that could be construed as racial or religious or sexual intolerance, or demeaning of someone’s status as a carer – there are all sorts of things that could be taken negatively by someone, and it can create a risk of workplace legal action.”
Rules for references for leaving employees
The reference is another area of possible contention. Employers are not obliged to give a reference, and it has no legal standing.
Andrew Jewell, principal lawyer at McDonald Murholme, finds that most big employers don’t give references. They will simply give a “cold but accurate” statement of service, stating that the person worked in this role between these dates.
Larger employers increasingly think the task is too hard, he says.
“They may have in the past tried to do the right thing with a good reference, and then run into subjective concerns where an employee feels their reference is not glowing enough – or even if too bland, it’s effectively a bad reference.”
Jewell says managers have come to feel they should “pull it back to a really standard, neutral and formularised reference, governed by the HR department”.
“In a sense, there’s no benefit for the departing employee, but there’s also no negative if everyone knows that is your policy on references.”
Jewell says this can be different for smaller employers. Staff knowing that you generally give positive references will filter back to your current workforce, and can boost morale and create the feeling that the workplace looks after its employees.
“That can be a valid commercial decision, to seek to create that feeling, but it’s not a legal obligation.”
Eichenbaum says that above all, employers should resist the temptation to try to over-egg a reference as part of a farewell gift.
“There has been a lot of discussion around whether a reference constitutes a representation, and whether, if you make a representation that is knowingly false – by omission, for example – you leave yourself open to litigation because someone has relied on that representation, to their detriment. If by providing a purely positive reference, you deliberately omit things that are not so positive, that can be a risk.
“I think that’s why there is a move back to simpler statements of service, rather than making any qualitative representations as to the employee’s performance or any other attributes,” he says.
Jewell says employees have the option of seeking a personal reference from an ex-manager, if their past workplace has an official policy against references.
“That seems to be the way the wind is blowing, towards HR being in control and very templated references given – cold but accurate. It’s a bit sad, but it’s simply a risk minimisation strategy in the modern workplace,” he says.
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Saying goodbye to leaving employees
The only reason not to acknowledge a departing employee with a farewell is if that person specifically doesn’t want it, Smith says.
“Although every situation is different, I would lean towards taking the opportunity of reinforcing your values by acknowledging the employee’s contributions and wishing them well – and a farewell is a nice way to do that.”
The bottom line, says Smith, is there is “more to be gained” by graciousness than any other course of action.
If you can farewell someone in a way that wishes them well, be assured your words will carry further afield and send a message to the rest of your staff.