The Break-Up: Managing Employee Departures

employee departures

The way in which an employee is treated when departing your company is just as important as how you handled the process when they joined.

Remember that intoxicating time? You wooed and courted and promised them the moon. You shared your hobbies (“look at all our ‘employee engagement activities!!’”) and pet peeves (“please read our HR policies”). And even though your out-of-date and heavily photoshopped profile picture (“branding”) didn’t resemble reality (“actual culture”) in any way, you managed to convince them to come aboard.

But now they’ve decided to leave. The romance has soured or a more attractive suitor has arrived and lured them away. When an employee tells you “It’s not you – it’s me” (even though it may, in fact, be you) there are a few situations to avoid as you work through the break-up.

The Bloodletting

Asking an employee to leave immediately upon resignation is at the top of the list for inane moves. Granted, this may seem sensible for a salesperson who’s not going to be filling the pipeline with new leads if he’s walking out the door in 2 weeks, but what’s the point of tossing Carol in Accounting out the door the moment she gives notice?  Yet there are companies who apparently assume all resigning employees are going to gather all the corporate intel they can and sell it to the highest bidder. I’ve joined organizations where this was such the norm -and expectation – that resigning employees who had to work out a 2 week notice were actually offended they weren’t asked to depart forthwith.

The Shunning

Bob tenders his resignation and is immediately a pariah. He’s no longer invited to meetings and his name disappears from email groups. He can probably live with all of this but it pains him just a bit when his boss, the division director and, so it seems, the entire leadership team don’t even offer greetings in the hallway. One step removed from Hester Prynne. Poor Bob.

The Cortege

For those working on-site, a resignation (yes, even a voluntary one – see “The Bloodletting”) may result in a Security Guard (or HR staffer) materializing in one’s office door with a box. The box is for packing up photos of kids and assorted office knick-knacks (“Ma’am – is that YOUR coffee mug or does it belong to the company?”).  The Guard is the accompanying attendant for the mournful procession out-of-the-building while everyone in the building furtively avoids eye contact.

The Farewell Party

This is nice, right?  Sally gets treated to cake and punch and her manager gives her a gift card to Outback Steakhouse after he makes a speech about all her contributions and how she was an integral part of the team’s success. Her co-workers sign a card (funny and slightly ribald because Sally has a sense of humor) and wish her the best of luck. There are hugs all around with promises to stay in touch and get together for the occasional lunch or happy hour. But Sally feels a bit sad as she wonders “why didn’t they say these things and treat me this way during the 4 years I worked here?  If I knew this is how everyone felt I might not have looked for another job…”

Break-ups are hard; they tear off a little bit of your heart. And when an employee decides to move on and enter a relationship with someone else you may not be ready to say “I’ll always love you.”

But you can surely tell them “I hope we can still be friends.”

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Death to Shorthand

shorthand

“I hate dealing with Joe; he never remembers anything I tell him.” (“Oh… you didn’t know that Joe has hearing loss in his left ear?”)

“Jane always looks so mad; she’s just unpleasant to deal with.” (“I guess you hadn’t heard; Jane’s husband has terminal cancer.”)

“Carmen is pretty rude.  Do you know she’s the only team member who didn’t come to the baby shower the team hosted for me?” (“Maybe you didn’t know this but Carmen had a miscarriage last year; she finds it difficult to attend baby showers.”)

**********

Ah yes.  Who among us doesn’t jump to conclusions based on an interaction (or several) with another person?  We use mental shorthand to quickly categorize someone’s behavior and then we toss Joe, Jane and Carmen into one of the filing cabinets in our brain that we’ve labeled –“the difficult one” – the unfriendly one” – “the bitch.”  Task completed, they’re neatly labeled, and we decide that’s all we need to know about them. 

But in the workplace further problems arise when we neglect to review and examine those categorizations down the road. When a manager, co-worker or (heaven forbid) an HR professional keeps an employee in one of those file drawers and doesn’t attempt to gather more data or develop greater understanding.

I’ve known people who’ve worked together for over a decade who still rely on initial cataloging (and assumptions) from 2010. This is disappointing amongst peers but downright damaging and destructive when it occurs with managers or HR practitioners. (“Oh; I’m not interested in Susie for this internal opening. I interviewed her when she applied 3 years ago and she wasn’t a fit.”)

Shorthand is a dying skill.  Mental shorthand needs to follow.

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Replicate? Or Redefine?

best practices

A number of years ago, as I was cavorting-in-the-job-market whilst in pursuit of a new gig, I had an interview for an HR Leader role when the site leader (we’ll call him Bob) asked me “what HR best practices are you aware of in our industry? I want us to implement all the best practices.”

(I could sense the HR-splaining pride oozing out of Bob’s pores as he tossed that cliché (“best practices”) into the conversation. I decided he must have visited the SHRM website in preparation for hiring into an HR role he had not needed to fill for a number of years.)

Well,” said I, “I’m not particularly a fan of merely replicating what’s been done at other organizations. I’ll most certainly look at our immediate market competitors and across the industry  but I’m not one for simply ‘copying’.”

“Why,” I asked, “should we replicate when we have the opportunity to redefine?”

I got the job. 

(And I like to think I kicked ass at the job).

It certainly would have been very easy to walk in there, researched a bunch of shit from other companies in our industry or in our geographic area, and copied and pasted every single HR/People Ops program and initiative. Bob, as a matter of fact, was a great believer in duplicating (even down to the “naming” of things) what others were doing. Not unlike many (many!) other leaders:

  • “Acme Company, LLC down the street is doing X. We need to do X too.”
  • “When I worked at Ginormous Corporation we did A, B and C. I want to do that here at Small Potatoes, Inc.”
  • “Did you see that recruitment campaign/post/job advert from Sexy Company? We need to do that!”
  • “Well, I know Big Bad Competitor Across Town, LLP is leading the market with compensation and coming in 20% ahead of us in starting pay but we really can’t compete with them….” (oh…wait…bad example…#snicker)

Here’s the deal…

Market intelligence is important. Keeping an eye on what’s happening in the world of work is necessary. Conducting regular environmental scans/PESTLE analyses is imperative. Finding out what job or environmental factors matter to candidates and employees is crucial.

And yes; taking something one did at a previous company, adjusting it and implementing at a new company is often a wise move. Over the years I’ve carried (digitally speaking) forms, templates, policies, and training curriculums from one company to the next. These are the sorts of things that don’t require a reinvention, as the saying goes, of the wheel.

But not everything is ideal for imitation. You shouldn’t blindly borrow, plunder or copy someone else’s:

  • Company Values
  • Employer Branding
  • Talent Acquisition Strategies
  • HR Metrics and Success Measures
  • Performance Management Process
  • Rewards and Recognition Structure

Why? Because their (the other guy’s) “best practice” may not be the BEST practice for YOUR organization.

Besides…it’s much more fun to CREATE rather than replicate.

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Time to Think: The HR Knowledge Worker

knowledge worker

The term “knowledge worker” joined our business lexicon courtesy of Peter Drucker; the concept of “knowledge work” first appeared in his 1959 book The Landmarks of Tomorrow.

For the most part we all understand that knowledge workers access and apply information to answer questions, solve problems and generate new ideas. Knowledge workers interact with tools and systems that enable communication and information sharing. They acquire new information and use it in a creative manner. They produce, distribute, and share their knowledge with others. They never stop learning and acquiring new knowledge.

We often ascribe this moniker to scientists, engineers, programmers, design thinkers, creatives, academics, attorneys, and the like. Hollywood versions of the knowledge worker include Professor Indiana Jones, David Levinson (the Jeff Goldblum character) in Independence Day and Olivia Pope.  

They “think” for a living.

Sounds like what we should expect of HR leaders…doesn’t it?

Thinking.

Yet far too many HR leaders, caught up in the grinding gears of the corporate machine, are losing out on providing real value (their knowledge) to their organizations. There are far too many HR functions where every moment is filled with tasks. Busy busy busy. Activity after activity after activity. All in a misguided attempt to demonstrate to CEOs/Owners/Leaders that HR is needed.

But knowledge workers – meaning HR leaders – need time to pause, review, research, read, and ponder. They need to explore hypotheses before acting. When making decisions and weighing “can” they do something versus “should” they do something, they need time for contemplation and evaluation.

Sometimes HR Leaders need to prioritize merely getting together with peers to think collectively. Every meeting doesn’t have to be about getting through an agenda, giving updates on task accomplishment (busy! busy! busy!), or racing though a post-mortem on a problem or incident. It should be about gathering with peers for an off-site discussion or forming a community of practice.  It can be heading to a conference or event for the day rather than cranking out yet another report that no one will read. (Busy busy busy. See how busy I am?)

At other times HR leaders need to purposefully carve out the time for silence and concentration during the workday; grab a cup of coffee, turn off the phone and put on some headphones in order to scroll through the internet or page through a book to foster ideas.

Unfortunately that’s viewed as idleness in far too many organizations. “Susie, our HR Manager, wastes a half hour every day scrolling through websites,” an organizational leader once said to me. “She’s not even working! I need to write her up!”

Sigh.

So yes; it’s often about finding an organization (and a boss) who supports creativity and intellect. A boss who encourages their HR leader to use their brain. A boss who realizes – or to whom it’s explained – that it’s not about formatting and running reports; rather it’s about designing the strategy behind the report data.

Sssshhhh. It’s time to think.

“No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.”—Voltaire

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The Talent Crisis: Aspirational vs. Actual

candidate messaging

Last week my friend/colleague Jena Brown and I had a really good discussion about the role (perhaps) that HR, TA and Talent Marketers have played in our current talent crisis. What, we discussed, are some of the reasons that are causing employees to resign in droves? Why are organizations struggling with attracting candidates? Why are we hearing far too many stories of people going through on-boarding and then either pulling out at the last minute or simply no-showing on Day 1?

One aspect that Jena pointed out was that companies have created fluffy marketing and communications that aren’t real or realized throughout the company. She followed up with this example on LinkedIn:

Company says hourly employees are the heroes of everything but continues treating them like replaceable robots – work longer, work harder, and little room for flexibility (oh yeah, those flexibility benefits and messaging only applies to our non-hero employees). Employee sees company messaging vs their reality and is now faced with a value-based decision…. ‘Do I contribute to society like I want by working (like a dog for many) for some generalized praise or can I live off the stimulus check and not have to deal with the crap at work? Either way I have to find a way to regain dignity and sense of value.’”


The discussion moved forward into some other reasons that may be contributing to the current attraction/retention crisis including when one publicly positions their company as committed to an issue while simultaneously doing the opposite and the tendency of far too many organizations to merely copy the marketing/messaging from others (resulting in an overload of sameness).

In my estimation there are two factors at play.

First, as the folks tasked with attracting candidates and retaining employees, we often fail to distinguish between “aspirational” and “actual.” Sometimes it’s because we don’t stop to think about the difference between the two. Sometimes it’s because we know the actual is such crap that the only way we believe we can craft a compelling message is to just focus on the aspirational.

The aspirational world is, for many of us, the fantasy land where (a) people really are the most important asset (b) the workplace does provide flexibility, and (c) ideas are heard and collaboration is a shared value.

Secondly, we (the collective “we” in organizations around the world and in functions that cross ALL department lines) confuse activity with impact.  This is what leads companies to hop on the “performative acts” bandwagon; copying and pasting quotes, messages and graphics that align with whatever-month-we-are-celebrating (but only for that month of course) or deciding it’s time to insert the badge-du-jour because everyone else is doing it.

So what to do?

As Jena pointed out, panic has set in because our predictive models aren’t working, and the current candidate/employee behaviors aren’t what we’ve come to expect. (And thus, predictably, many have moved into reactive mode and tossed out any plans to work on strategy that truly can create more balance for those ‘heroes’ in the workforce).

The first step?  Speak the truth; and companies and HR, TA and Talent Marketing professionals need to be bold enough to do so. (and no; not with one of those bullshit and cruel job adverts that belittle and shame people). It’s perfectly fine to say “our pay is average, our benefits are mediocre, and when you punch in for the day you will work your ass off. But we’ll treat you fairly, work with you on your schedule, always tell you the truth and most importantly we’ll never sugar coat stuff.”

I once worked for a company with high-turnover (industry norm) and thus, obviously, high-volume recruiting. We had strong applicant flow, so we clearly communicated up front with candidates about the pay, the pace, the workplace rules, and the not-particularly-competitive benefits. (Our goal was to get folks to self-select out).  My favorite saying, crafted by one of our recruiters, was one we used across the department when speaking with candidates “we realize this will probably not be your forever job or even your forever company, but it can perhaps be a great job and a great company for you right now.”

The truth. The actual truth.  

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