Your Best Employee Quit on the Spot. What’s Next?

Cartoon of manager talking to employee that just quit.

Imagine this: It’s Friday afternoon. You just left a one-on-one check-in meeting with your top-performing employee. They gave notice and are moving on to a new role next month. Internally, you’re panicking–a major delivery deadline is rapidly approaching. You’re not sure you can meet your targets without this person on your team. You’re already thinking about quickly hiring seasonal employees to cover impending staffing gaps. The thought hits you: my best employee wants to leave, and there may be nothing I can do about it. 

Global management firm McKinsey & Company published a survey that found 40% of people in six countries were unhappy at work–and considering leaving their job in the near future. When your best employee quits, it’s often an indicator of a greater issue, especially in this challenging hiring climate. Managers need to know when an employee is likely to leave and proactively address pain points to reduce attrition, then handle the resignation with grace if all else fails.  

What happens before your best employee quits

Unless you’re this clueless manager, looking out for warning signs your best employee is going to quit shouldn’t require extra effort, just extra attention to detail. A regularly established, recurring check-in can help you see the signs early. Use this time to get curious and ask questions. Explore what is working well and areas where additional support is needed. 

Some signs an employee is about to quit include: 

  1. The quality or quantity of work produced has diminished
  2. A dropoff in engagement and participation
  3. Increased levels of friction or conflict
  4. More time off requests than usual
  5. Undergoing major life changes

5 most common reasons employees quit

The McKinsey survey also explores what pushes or pulls employees into or out of a job. A few experiences demotivate workers and drive them away. Over 10 reasons employees quit are illustrated on a line graph alongside the top factors driving employee retention. 

The top 5 reasons employees cited for quitting a job were:

  1. Lack of career development and advancement – no growth opportunities eventually cause employees to look elsewhere.
  2. Inadequate total compensation – employees want competitive pay, perks, and benefits.
  3. Uncaring and uninspiring leaders – bad people managers and ineffective leadership affect morale.
  4. Lack of meaningful work – employees want to know their work matters. 
  5. Unsustainable work expectations – an overreliance on overtime and inflexible schedules. 

12 things to do right after your best employee quits

If your best employee just quit, you’re not unreasonable to think that you need to proceed with caution. Turnover contagion can have a domino effect on your remaining employees. Your company may need to rehire immediately, or take time to restructure. Whatever the case is, do move through this time intentionally to avoid further impact. 

  1. Press pause. When your employee breaks the news, don’t feel the need to react or figure out every subsequent detail immediately. At the moment, thank them for the disclosure. If they emailed you, acknowledge receipt. Ask if they’d be willing to schedule a time to check-in. 
  2. Make a list. Consider your immediate needs as a manager. Do you understand your employee’s role? Do you know what they were working on? Identify questions & critical tasks that will need to be reassigned.
  3. Have a discussion. During your check-in, move through your list together. Employees are not required to disclose their next steps, so avoid pressing for answers or guilt-tripping them. Be open to listening if it comes up. 
  4. Make a counteroffer. This doesn’t always work. You may overestimate how much you need this employee and bargain for them to stay. They could be leaving for a personal reason or due to a problem that you can remedy–identify which it is and see what can be done.
  5. Inform your team. If the decision is final, make sure you break the news to your team immediately and thoughtfully. Hearing through the grapevine that a top performer has left can detrimentally affect employee morale. 
  6. Redistribute workload. Turn attention to those that stayed. Is there capacity for other employees to absorb the workload? If not, explore temporary staffing solutions to fill positions quickly.
  7. Keep talking. People want to feel needed. Avoid an awkward two-week notice period and keep interactions collegial. Keep communication channels with the outgoing employee open to ensure a smooth transition.
  8. Look to the future. Consider what your company needs next. Hire different skill sets to help your business grow in a new direction. Restructure your teams to ensure better coverage. 
  9. Celebrate. Sometimes, moving on to the next opportunity is just a natural progression. If it feels appropriate, do something small to send off your outgoing employee with good wishes. 
  10. Exit Interview. After spending time with your company, outgoing employees almost always have valuable insights to share. Ask for honest, constructive feedback and be prepared to implement needed changes.
  11. Keep in touch. An offer to write a letter of recommendation can go a long way in maintaining goodwill and making the departure a great experience. You never know when you might work together again! 
  12. Consider rehires. Whether employment ends positively or negatively, it can sometimes be the case that a worker decides to reapply to the company at a later period. Apple CEO Steve Jobs was fired after a scandal but returned triumphantly just a few years later.

Navigating resignations is overwhelming for any manager. If your best employee just quit, take the learning experience in stride and know that your team will reach equilibrium again.

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About the Author: Meghna Jaradi is a freelance writer and events manager with experience working for the Seattle Times, Kitchen Arts & Letters, Book Larder, Peddler Brewing Company, and more. You can contact her on LinkedIn.

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