How dare they! You took a chance on them, you nurtured them, taught them everything you know, and THIS is how they repay you? By saying “so long” and heading off to work for someone else? It’s an outrage.

The look in your eyes as they pack up their desk says one thing:

“You’re dead to me.”

Whether you’ve literally reacted like this when an employee heads off to pastures new or simply thought it, it could signal a bigger problem with your organization’s culture — and your leadership style. 

When a resignation feels like a betrayal. 

Not that I don’t understand your reaction. I get it, truly. In fact, I’ve played the “you’re dead to me” card myself in the past.

As leaders and managers we rely on our employees to help us achieve our goals and an unexpected departure can be hugely disruptive. Your own workload will likely increase, as will that of your other employees, sowing seeds of unrest and leaving you to deal with the complaints. And of course you have the added task of having to dedicate time, effort, and finances to finding their replacement.

And that’s just the practical side of things. 

We shouldn’t discount the emotional blow of an employee jumping ship. As a leader you’ve spent time guiding, teaching, and nurturing your employee. You’ve built a relationship and a level of trust that your organization thrives on. You assumed they were every bit as invested in the organization as you are. There’s a very real sense of betrayal. It’s hard not to take it personally.

Until you’re the one on the other side.

When you’re the one who’s on the receiving end of the “you’re dead to me” treatment, you soon realize just how awful it is — and how damaging it is for the organization.

When you decide to leave and it’s characterized under a fog of disloyalty, your own resentment grows. You feel as if your contributions to the organization were worthless, unappreciated. Suddenly any loyalty you felt for your former employer is erased.

And make no mistake, when a culture like this exists, it breeds an underground counterculture where ex-employees huddle together sharing stories of anger, hurt, and resentment. Those are some powerful emotions and the last thing you need when you’re about to start a recruitment drive!

Breaking the “betrayal” culture. 

So how do you avoid cultivating a culture where accusations of “betrayal” are the first reaction to an employee who wants to leave the organization?

Well, it starts with you…but the first thing to remember is that it’s not about you at all!

Take a moment to reflect on your employees — particularly those who are showing signs of having itchy feet. What do you know about them and their goals? What drives them? What do they want from their future career? Have you been doing whatever you can as an organization to help them grow, thrive, and progress?

And if not, is it really such a surprise they have one foot out of the door?

I realized the importance of this recently when I embarked upon my “apology tour”,  a journey of reconnection where I met with former employees who might believe they were given the “you’re dead to me” treatment when they resigned.

Talk about a learning curve: I’ve had to spend a lot of time reflecting on who I was as a manager and who I want to be as a leader.

I’ve come to understand that while I was (mostly) happy for them, I was overwhelmed at the impact their leaving would have on me and the rest of the team. I didn’t know how to react so I made it about me when it should have been about them. I took their resignations personally and internalized their departure as my fault, when I should have been taking the time to reflect on the role I played in their leaving. 

Did I listen to what they wanted and needed? Did I nurture them and give them the opportunities for growth they craved? It turns out I didn’t — and in failing to do that, I let us all down. Because I failed to show up as my best self, they had to go elsewhere to become their best selves.

Handling transitions: my advice for employers.

Of course, the best thing you can do is to hang on to loyal employees for as long as possible by helping each one reach their full potential within the organization. But there will always be resignations prompted by factors outside of your control.

So when a trusted employee hands you a resignation letter, remember what it is to be a leader. A leader cares about those who work for them and recognizes the value they’ve already brought to the team and the organization.

And a leader appreciates the importance of supporters. They understand that a follower who believes in their leader long after they’ve left the payroll is likely the most passionate follower they’ll ever have. They know that a former employee may be their most valuable advocate outside of the organization.

If you have a strong culture built on values you want former employees to tell their friends and their professional peers. You never know where that employee may go in their career and having them as an ally and a champion may serve you well. Much like a collegiate alumni relationship, treat your employees with the respect they deserve. In fact, imagine yourself on the other side of the organizational relationship and consider for a moment, how would I want to be treated if I were transitioning from the organization?

Handling transitions: my advice for employees.

When interviewing with a company remember you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. 

Ask what former employees would say about the organization’s culture, and their journey from hiring to separation. Even better, find some former employees and quiz them on their experience of working for the organization, why they left, and how they feel about the company now. The way they speak of their former workplace and former managers could tell you everything you need to know.

Saying good-bye to a valued, dependable, hard-working employee is never easy but, as people tend to change jobs on average every 3 years, it is an inevitable facet of leadership.

As I see it, you have two choices. You can keep your employees at a distance, never fully investing in them practically or emotionally to cushion the blow when they leave.

Or you can choose to invest in them. Commit to being the kind of leader you’d want to follow: do everything within your power to help them progress in their career knowing that if and when they leave you’ll wish them well. The second path is the harder one to follow — but while it opens you up to feelings of loss when your employees move on, it also ensures that they’ll be just as invested in you long after they’ve left.

That way every good-bye turns into an “I’ll see you again soon.” And let me just add, a “boomerang employee,” one that returns after seeing if the grass is really greener somewhere else, can be your most passionate advocate.  

If you’re struggling when it comes to keeping employees happy, dealing with resignations, or any other aspect of ethical leadership, get in touch. We’d love to help you out!