People can leave your teams for a variety of reasons. It almost always has something to do with the manager – don’t take it personally. People can leave voluntarily or involuntarily. For the latter, as a manager you may or may not have a say in it. I’ve experienced people leaving for all sorts of reasons: better pastures, performance issues, lay offs, and code of conduct violations. None of them are easy and all take a toll on both the team and yourself personally. I’d like to explore managing through these experiences.
I’d like to start with the deep impact and employee’s exodus can have on your team. Rest assured, there will be an impact felt for quite some time. I’ll approach situations by the questions I’ve gotten from the folks that remain. Absorbing the work of a former colleague is daunting for a team and the, “How will we get this done?” questions will come up. The simple fact is that all your work is still there but fewer people left to accomplish it. As with any workload issue, I think the best approach here is prioritization. Get all the work out on the table and put it in order of business importance. Confirm with those above you that the stuff on the bottom of the list may lag. Then report back to you team any agreement / leeway you were able to negotiate. It is a sign to them that you will advocate on their behalf – and will normally be appreciated. Back fill head count may or may not be an option and even if that does come, it takes time and prioritization of current work will need to occur.
The second question I always get is, “Why did so and so leave?” or in the case of lay offs, “Why was so and so chosen?” In 100% of cases, I find it best to simply not comment. No good can come of going into details. It simply churns the rumor mill (which is likely already in full swing). I usually respond with, “I’m not going to talk about that, I hope you understand.” Most employees wont ask the question in the first place but some inevitably will. Respect for the privacy of the individual that left is the best policy here. In some cases, particularly with a poor performing employee, folks will know why someone left and may thank you for it. A silver lining here is that remaining team members will see that you’re willing to take action.
The last question I normally get, in the case of lay offs is, “Are there more coming?” This is the most difficult for me because as someone who manages mostly individual contributors, I don’t know. Unless the company has publicly announced that there will be, you don’t know. In the case where you do know through some other means, you’re likely not at liberty to say. It is best to reassure your team and get the work done. It is truly one of the hardest things to manage through. While I know it is part of the job description for management in a large corporation, it is very difficult.
This leads me to the final topic I want to cover in this post – how this affects you as a manager. For me, this depends on the reason for the employee departure. If it was a good employee and voluntary, it is natural to ask, “What could I have done differently?” Self reflection is good to a point but don’t harp on it. Figure out if there was a situation you can learn from but move on. You cant control the thoughts of another person, a huge offer they were given, or a family situation that forced a job change. Try not to dwell on it.
In the case of managing someone out for performance or code of conduct issues, the aftermath cuts both ways. Someone that consumed an inordinate amount of management time is now out of the team. But at the same time, someone no longer has employment and their life has been impacted. That can hit you emotionally, acknowledge that but, assuming you did your best to coach up and retain that person, rest easy. They weren’t a fit for the role and in the long term, it will be better for both of you.
Layoffs are the final and most difficult case. Many times, the person(s) leaving are good employees who are being let go for skill set or financial reasons. Corporations are businesses and have to be run as such. Let me say this – the situation is worst on the affected employee. The affect on the manager are secondary in magnitude to this. By focusing on the latter, I’m not diminishing the former. For any manager with a soul, terminating someone is difficult. It is especially difficult during layoffs because it isn’t an isolated occurrence. The mood of everyone is generally down and managers are asked to fire people and then do their best to raise the morale of the remaining team. In these situations I try to be transparent about how I’m feeling. If asked, “How are you doing?” I usually respond, “Pretty crappy.” Because I am. It isn’t easy to go through. In my opinion, putting on a happy face is disingenuous and folks will see right through it. You’ll lose a degree of trust the team has in you. Be honest and work through the emotion together with your team. I think this is the best way to bring the team through.