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Managers: It’s ok to let them go

I started a new position last week and, if I could tell you one thing, I would say, “I am happy” - and being happy is so important to me. You might be thinking to yourself, “She is in the honeymoon phase, she doesn’t know what she is talking about.” But every person I meet, every meeting I join, every everything is a reaffirmation that my decision was a positive one, one that will continue to make me happy. I can’t reiterate enough the importance of enjoying what we do and who we do it with. After all, you only live once.

As I walked through each day of my first week, my mind kept wandering back to a client situation from years ago. I had congratulated an individual on a promotion and was genuinely excited for them and their new role, but was very surprised at their less-than-enthused response. It turns out, the only reason they had applied for and accepted this specific role was because they knew that it was the only career change they would be allowed to make within the company. What do I mean by that? 

The organization had certain interview processes in place that would allow a current manager to block a candidate in their department from switching to a role outside of their organization. Let me rephrase that: A manager can prevent an employee from moving into a role that they have applied for and want to be in. It turns out this disgruntled employee had applied to over five positions within the larger organization and was turned down from every single one because their manager was “blocking” them.

Managers, let me ask you one question: Why would you want to keep someone like that in your organization? Let me guess: You have an ongoing project that you believe will fail if they leave. Or, they are your doer and shit won’t get done without them. Or, you don’t have time to train someone else to be in this position. Whatever the reason is, you should be helping them transition to their new role instead of holding them hostage in your department. As I think about this situation, two main points resonate with me:

You are only hurting your department by keeping them there.

As Managers, we all have rockstars on our teams. Those individuals tend to go above and beyond and, let’s face it, they make you look really good. There may come a time when those overachievers realize how much weight they are pulling in an organization and start to get burned out or, even better, desire to take on bigger roles within the company. 

I am a firm believer that happy employees perform their best work. If an employee is unsatisfied in your organization and they know you are preventing them from leaving, then they have no incentive to do anything more than the bare minimum. Why? Because they think you won’t fire them. Most likely they will bide their time within your department until they score a position outside the company. I always call this move, Playing your Ace.

Everyone has this card in their hand and, as Managers, we often forget it. If a good employee is unhappy in our department, then it is only a matter of time before they move onto something new. Shouldn’t we hope they seek success in another department? After all, the entire company is playing for the same team. Or is it better to work them to the point of no return and have them sweetly (as in revenge) lay that letter of resignation down on your desk at a crucial point in the project? You decide.

Try this instead:

Express your emotions surrounding the situation: 

I’m happy for you that you are working towards something new to help grow yourself, I know you will do great! I am also sad that you will be leaving my team. You have done a lot of great work here, and I know it will be tough to fill your shoes. Is the start date of this new position set in stone or is that something you could be flexible on?

My concerns for the project are XYZ and I believe that if we could keep you on for XX weeks then we could mitigate those risks. 

If they say Yes, great! If not, then thank them for their hard work and wish them nothing but the best. Then work together with them on a transition plan so that they can train a new hire or hand over their tasks to someone else in the department.

Everyone is replaceable.

I worked for a startup company early on in my career and put my heart and soul into ensuring people had a good culture experience within the company. I did my Job. I tried to go above and beyond. I cared about the people. On one of my last days, the head of Marketing said to me, “You did a great job. You should know we will survive without you. The company will move forward. Whether you want to believe it or not everyone is replaceable.”. Ouch!

As managers we may be thinking, “I don’t know what I would do without this person.” or even feel like our professional world is falling apart, but now it is my turn to remind you: They did a great job. You will survive without them. The department will move forward. People can always be replaced. 

So as you react to this situation it is important to remember not to cast blame on the individual for leaving the company, as if they would be ruining the success of a project as a result. You might have big feelings surrounding this recent resignation, and that’s ok. I know firsthand how disheartening and frustrating it can be to have a rockstar leave your department. So I am here to tell you that it’s ok for you, as a Manager, to be frustrated that someone is moving on. You are a person with feelings and nobody can take that anger or frustration away from you.

You do have to be careful with what you communicate and how you communicate it. For example, I mentioned that it is not ok to tell an employee that they will ruin a project by leaving. If the success of a project is reliant upon one individual, then I would argue you have a much bigger issue at hand. It is also not ok to ignore them or treat them like dirt because they are choosing a different path. 

Try this instead:

In these situations I encourage you to think of what specifically about this individual made them so successful within your organization. Was it their communication skills? People skills? Solution-oriented approach? Whatever it is, it is important for you to define them because those will be the types of skillsets you look for as you search to fill the position. I believe you can also use that to your advantage throughout the hiring process by also incorporating those skillsets in the Required field of the job posting that you have to create.

I will end this blog with a simple reminder to my managers: Make the decision that works best for your team. Having one less individual on your team is so much better for the team culture, even if certain tasks get tabled as a result. Having someone on there who is unhappy, negative, and spreading venom into the team is detrimental to your team. It’s ok to let people go. It’s good if you wish them the best, even better if you keep a good relationship — who knows, they might come back to your team one day with new experiences and skillsets, a strong advantage for you and the company.


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