Guiding your firm through staff resignations

minute read

Last Updated September 29, 2023


lindsay malcolm, education services coordinatorLeah Reid, Education Team Development Manager

“Instead of worrying about what you cannot control, shift your energy to what you can create.”– Roy T. Bennet

All right, firm leaders. It’s time to address the elephant in the room:

Your best, top-performing staff members may decide to leave your firm—and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Even if you’ve done everything possible to ensure they’re happy with their job and empowered in their role so there’s no way they would ever consider leaving, when it finally happens, it’s entirely possible that nothing short of a miracle will persuade them to stay.

We know, it’s a dreadful moment. The emotions rush in…and you begin to scramble. Do you find a replacement right away, or consider someone in the firm to step into their shoes? What do you tell the staff and the clients? How will you navigate this change when the only thing you want to do is wake up tomorrow and find it’s all a bad dream?

As with most difficult situations, as a leader, the spotlight is on how you handle adversity. Your response will influence whether their departure becomes a bump in the road—a moment of growth in the face of change—or the point when things go haywire and the firm begins to spiral downward.

“Always turn a negative situation into a positive situation.” – Michael Jordan

To avoid the spiral, let’s talk about managing morale and strengthening the firm when your best employee leaves.

  • Take time to evaluate your response carefully. Tackle your feelings and reactions before you have to manage those of the firm’s staff. If you try to communicate a positive message while harboring anxiety, frustration or bitterness, your body language and words will showcase your true feelings; that’s human nature. Once you’ve emerged from your shock and disappointment, work through a process to ensure their departure is more positive than negative.
  • Celebrate. Losing a well-liked colleague will create concern and grief for your staff members. If you invalidate that grief by not celebrating all the wonderful things about the departing person, you’re removing an essential part of the change process. Instead, lead the “We’ll miss you!” party. Set aside a time to celebrate with everyone in the firm, laugh about inside jokes and tell stories of shared experiences. Bring feelings of happiness to the situation to strengthen the bond among the staff who remain.
  • Look for opportunities and evaluate the why. Gather information by conducting an exit interview. As part of their legacy, they can make the firm and the team better in the future. Don’t focus on why they’re leaving; if they’re a top staff member, it’s most likely not about the firm or the people in it. Ask these questions: Where can processes be improved? What support can be enhanced so staff can do their jobs more efficiently? Their honest answers will help you work through the change…and will prove their legacy to be invaluable.
  • The spotlight is on leadership to pave the way for change and growth. Take the information from the exit interview, the emotions from staff and the reactions in your gut to begin the journey ahead.
    • First, make sure everyone is clear about the mission and vision of the firm and align your values.
    • Next, have one-on-one conversations to ensure staff feels they have the skills and resources to do their jobs well and make necessary changes. Show staff that you’re serious about their happiness and job satisfaction by implementing quick, easy wins in response to their needs.
    • Finally, look at the gaps as opportunities. Are there staff members who want to grow into a new role or take on responsibilities held by the departed employee? Empower current staff to take on new challenges if appropriate.
  • Keep the bridges open and part on good terms. Leaving the door open for the future if they should want to return is always a good idea. Let them know there’s always a place at the firm—after all, they may come back one day with new skills and more expertise.

“Each problem has hidden in it an opportunity so powerful that it literally dwarfs the problem.” – Joseph Sugarman

Expending every effort to keep our top employees is always a goal. Leaders never want to hear the words, “I’m resigning.” But, when the dreaded moment arises, the most important thing leaders can do is show their strength and resilience by supporting the staff who are also dealing with the change.

Remember that grief and frustration are difficult emotions to navigate—but as a leader, you’re in the unique position to help lessen the blow and turn the tides.

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