Unintended Full Stops: A Guide to Smooth Exits

Written by
Monica Pillai

Companies meticulously craft good experiences for their people. A smooth exit is part of that experience. “Closure is 50% of the game”, an ex-boss was fond of quipping. People are not looking for long-haul employment anymore. “Plan for the exits of your employees as soon as they join” is the abiding mantra. 

When we bid goodbye to our colleagues, we are actually saying, “I will see you around”, and not just because of ubiquitous Linkedin presence or community forums and meetups. We meet our ex-colleagues again and again - not only as potential colleagues, leads and team members but also as clients, investors, coaches, mentors and more. 

Future business could come in the form of an ex-employee who strongly recommends you. In this scenario, shoddily managed exits are a cost to the business. And yet, companies and advisory HR folk frequently get respectful exits wrong. 

The core of the conundrum is that there are two conflicting realities at play: 

One is that employment is a legal contract between an individual and an organisation. When the contract ends — whoever it is initiated by, and for whatever reason — the organisation’s relationship ends.

The other is that we seek connection, values alignment and growth and go into new roles with hopes and hearts wide open. We make friends there, create meaningful truths and have memories associated with our stints at workplaces. From a logistics and labour law perspective, getting all the paperwork done signals the end of the contract. For the aspect often mislabelled “soft”, the work just begins. 

A code of conduct on what constitutes minimum exit protocol is a great first step. Lacking this code of conduct, leaders default to their own practices and priorities, creating unintended fissures. Here are some common situations where organisations get exits wrong.

Unexpected resignations of high performers: High performers in “career making roles” are deeply valued. They balance their own growth, supporting the team and maintaining relationships. They typically leave on a high note, when things are stable. This could blindside leaders, that  team members who stuck with them through crises suddenly, and seemingly without warning, announce their exit. 

Leaders could battle a sense of betrayal, especially if they forget that the employment contract is just that - a contract that is active till it isn’t. The surprise and stress of work handover and succession can lead to the unintended consequence of a sudden chilling towards the exiting employee. While with experience, they learn to balance this tightrope better, the organic learning curve comes at the cost of relationships.  

It would serve them to recognise and question their expectation of loyalty and gratitude. Assuming that the employee has unexpressed gratitude, planning for a good exit will go a long way in ensuring lasting loyalty.

Slow creeping notice periods: Organisations/ teams in the messy middle of massive change experience churn and leaders find themselves in situations where team members are suddenly dropping off. 

A dangerous thought at this time is to make all employees mandatorily serve out their full notice. Most organisations have a 60 or 90 day notice. Most Talent Acquisition folk set their candidate filter at 30 days. Leaders think this temporarily solves the problem.  

Resigning employees go from “you are valuable”, to not being given a choice to exit early and being unintentionally sidelined during the long notice. The person goes from “I love it here” to “why did I suddenly stop mattering?” 

Looking for the actual solutions, which could be cranking up the hiring engine, giving existing employees compelling reasons to stay on, and strong handovers to new folks might be a better option. If the person is committed to exiting, anticipate and recognise their mental switch off. They have little emotional attachment to business outcomes. For leads with skin in the game, it is key to realise that this sudden detachment from the exiting person is neither unfair behaviour, nor implication of your leadership. To commit to the earliest exit possible, plan for a smooth transition and clear handovers is all in your control. 

Involuntary exits: There are exits initiated by the organisation and that always hurts more than if the individual chooses to leave. 

If the organisation initiates the exit, there is a greater responsibility of care on the leaders. Being let go from work is among the top ten life stressors. Externally, the person may seem composed, but have no doubt, there will be conflicting emotions at war in their head. 

A disastrous flub is if confidentiality of the terms of exit are not maintained and there is a slow creep of the news to all. That is undignified and disrespectful. 

Protocol on performance-related exits is to let the impacted people know what is coming. If it is performance related and your systems allow, give them a structured and time-bound chance to get better. Clear consequences mean that if the hammer falls, they are prepared for it. I can recall instances of exit conversations done so respectfully and authentically that some time down the road, we have had celebratory conversations as their new work/ careers took off phenomenally. To quote my business leader at the time, “Telling team members that they are in the wrong place is a solemn leadership responsibility. We can do that with dignity, heck, even with love”

There will be some dissonance as the exiting folks’ narrative might change and the organisation’s doesn’t. This situation often makes the leaders into disliked or feared folks. Even in such a situation, maintaining confidentiality and not retaliating is the only organisation / leader / HR alternative. Leadership is held to a higher standard. Leaders need to trust that prioritising privacy and confidentiality over transparency is a need and ongoing trust building will overcome this momentary break in transparency. 

How to do exits well?

There is a gradation to maintaining respect in exits. Think of it as a Maslowian pyramid, if you will. 

Respect for the contract: The lowest tier is to ensure all terms of the contract are honoured. Extending the notice period beyond the contracted time, threatening to withhold a relieving letter etc. are beyond the pale. 

At this tier is to ensure that what was committed was carried out. A resignation acceptance, agreeing to terms of exit like handover etc. and seeing them through is the bare minimum. 

Respect for the person’s time and work: The next tier also asks little of the leaders. For the person’s direct leader to send a goodbye message or organise a meeting, thanking the person for the work done qualifies. Unless the exit is for reasons of ethical or behavioural challenges, an invitation to reach out in the future, as needed. 

Respect for the person’s presence and contributions: A farewell party or a get-together, either online or in person. Depending on the energy levels of the organisation, a presentation of their time (especially for tenured folk), collaborators taking turns to say bye and thank them is a great way to make this happen. 

A celebration of the person and your shared memories: The unsaid message here is, “this is not goodbye”. Some great practices here include sending them unexpected gift boxes that go beyond the “exiting employee swag bag”; inviting them for big events; alumni meetups; keeping a channel of communication ongoing; open invites to drop into the workspace etc. 

I planned for an end of year memory box last year. We organised for these to be sent to colleagues who started 2022 with us but did not end the year with us. The messages of nostalgia, love and appreciation that I received in December 2022 carried me all the way to mid-2023. Something like this costs very little, except maybe a heartstring or two. 

At one of my earlier workplaces, I know I have a “walk in anytime” privilege and I use it often. At their 20th year anniversary, over 200 of us met and mingled while taking stock of how life has moved us all on and cheered the steady leadership that held us all together. 

In closing, if leaders remember the currency of kindness when planning exits, and infuse the bittersweet emotion of saying goodbye from an organisation but not from our lives, we will have richer, more authentic and infinitely memorable exits.

Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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