When people leave

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Management 101

Have you got a minute?

We’ve all been there.

For the first time in a while, you’re having a pretty good day. You’ve not had many interruptions and you’re making measurable progress on the things you need to be working on. All of a sudden, Alice, who’s one of your stars, walks towards your desk and makes eye contact whilst raising her eyebrows. “Have you got a minute?”, she says. “Sure”, you reply, whilst leaving your chair and heading towards the nearest empty meeting room. You notice that something feels a bit odd. You wonder why. You enter the room following Alice and let the door click shut behind you. The air feels heavier than usual.

“What’s up?”
“I… just wanted to let you know that I’ve been offered a role elsewhere. It seems like a great opportunity, so I’d like to tell you that I’m handing in my notice and I’ll be leaving.”

Your day isn’t going so well anymore.

How is that project going to get delivered without Alice? She was critical to getting the new infrastructure rolled out! How are Andy and Ben going to react as they get on so well with her? Will they follow her to this new place? How are you ever going to replace her? Why would she ever want to leave?

It happens

People are always going to leave. It’s normal and it sucks. It especially sucks if you’re a manager. Your output and performance is very much dependent on your team: you want to make sure that you’re staffed with great people since you know how hard it is to find talented folk, especially if you’re operating with a limited budget.

These days, we can’t expect people to stay at their job indefinitely, especially in the technology industry. Depending on how much you’d like to believe this article, the average tenure at the top 10 technology companies is between 1-2 years (2017 data). My parents would certainly be shocked by that statistic. My father’s last job before he retired had him doing 18 years of service. In this new world where everyone is always going to leave, how can we hope to make the best of the situation? How can we adjust our own expectations and feelings about people leaving to make the situation as painless as possible?

Firstly, let’s embrace that previous sentence again. People are always going to leave. It’s normal and it sucks. Just read it a few times and let it sink in. As a manager, you are doomed to failure if you think that you are going to keep everyone in your current team indefinitely. You will only set your expectations as such that you will feel terrible when someone does hand in their notice. Be comfortable with the fact that all of our careers are different and we are all motivated by varying aspects: challenge, location, comfort, working hours, programming languages and frameworks, friends, and new opportunities to name but a few. They can all be conflicting forces in life decisions.

The best that you can do as a manager is make sure that people are leaving for positive change. Focus all of your attention on making sure that people aren’t leaving for bad reasons, and let them depart with amiability and your blessing.

Good reasons for leaving

Our lives are more connected, varied and challenging than they have ever been and this is especially true in the technology industry. There is more societal pressure on those at the start of their career to get the best experience they can get, no matter where it is. I see engineers bouncing between companies and cities at intervals similar to those suggested above. You can’t hold people back.

Likewise, in an economy where house prices are continually rising, having just one person in a relationship working full time is much less likely, especially if both parties are in similar industries. There exists the two-body problem for academics, which highlights the struggle faced by a couple when trying to find tenured academic work where they can still live together as a family. For technology and creative jobs, we are not limited as much by the lack of opportunities, but couples can face the tension between being able to do the job they really want and the location they want to live in. Our career drive often throws a grenade under our natural human instinct to settle.

Those that you are managing are always assessing which other opportunities are out there. When faced with someone telling you that they are going to leave, you can be quick to get angry and think that your employee is giving you another problem to deal with, that they are ungrateful of their position, that they’re just chasing money or prestige, or that they’re taking the easy way out of a hard year at the company. This is rarely the case. There are many legitimate reasons that people leave which show no malice towards you as their manager. For example:

  • New opportunities: sometimes there is no room for an employee to be promoted any higher in your department so instead they’re going to do that role elsewhere, or they wish to join a company where there is more room for that role to be created, such as an early stage start-up in a phase of fast growth. Additionally, they may have worked at your company for a long time and just fancy a change in surroundings and the type of work that they are doing. Maybe an opportunity has come up to work with their best friends. That’s totally natural, and it’s not your fault.
  • Family: their partner may have been offered a job of a lifetime elsewhere and they need to relocate and find a new job nearby. They or their partner may have aging or sick parents and need to leave to offer the right level of care, especially if their family are not local. They may want their kids to go to a particular school, perhaps because their child needs a particular education, either through learning or physical disabilities or maybe through academic brilliance. You can’t control these things, so just let them be.
  • Compensation: sometimes they are in the right industry at the right time and get offered a life-changing compensation package elsewhere: the sort of package that could mean they could retire 10 years earlier, or that their partner could quit their job, take a year off and then start their own business. That’s just the nature of a free market economy, and as hard as it is, just be happy for them. It’s a nice thing.

In these situations, you have not done anything wrong. There is a swirling and complex web of life outside of work that pulls and pushes people in a multitude of directions. Become the facilitator here. Focus on negotiating a date for them to leave, what sort of work and knowledge they need to hand over and to whom, and on beginning recruitment for their replacement. Always offer a reference if needed, either formally or through a network like LinkedIn. Keep it amicable, because the industry is closely connected and you may just end up working with this person again in the future. Leave the door open and the mat out.

Bad reasons for leaving

Sometimes, people leave for bad reasons. I am excluding them being let go because of bad performance because as a manager, that is a process that you have initiated and are driving through. The bad situations I refer to are the ones Andy Grove called “zingers”. What he was describing was the situation where you are caught completely off-guard by someone handing in their notice, insofar that you know in retrospect you could have prevented it from happening. Often they have a similar root cause: a lack of open and honest communication from both parties which results in simmering issues not being caught early. Some examples of these issues are below.

  • Compensation: your direct report was unhappy with their end of year pay rise, yet they felt that they were unable to talk about it openly. They got continually more annoyed to the point that they answered that email from a headhunter and went for an interview elsewhere. You found out about this for the first time when they had accepted the other job offer, giving you no opportunity to try and rectify this pay issue over time.
  • Issues with coworkers: your direct report simply cannot stand one of the people on their team, and every day over the last six months has been immensely frustrating for them. They don’t have any issues with their coworker’s work; in fact, it’s very good. However, their personalities clash badly and they didn’t want to raise it to you as they felt it was a personal issue rather than a professional one.
  • Career progression: the notice is handed in because they have been offered a team lead role at another company. They cite that there were no opportunities for promotion in the department. However, you know that in a few months a new team will be starting and they would have been a good fit. You didn’t even know they were interested in being a team lead!
  • Lack of challenge or new work: they are very bored of writing code for the API, and would love to increase their skill on high-throughput data ingest. They didn’t feel like they could ask to move team, as they felt that they were employed for the role that they are currently doing. You, however, know that they could have just asked to move team. Why didn’t they say anything? Why are you now holding their notice?

The root cause is the same: a lack of open and honest communication. Once somebody has accepted a job offer elsewhere, it becomes much harder for them to back out: it’s a tricky and embarrassing situation. Many of the other articles on this site beat the same drum: keep close, open and honest relationships. Be interested in your team’s life outside work, in their emotions and their hopes; both for their life and their career. Many clues will surface that you can use to keep your staff happy. You might just prevent people from leaving.

Negotiation?

If someone has surprised you with their notice, then one tactic that you can use is to negotiate some changes to their role that might keep them at the company. These might be a change of team, an increase in pay, more flexible working hours, extra time to do personal projects, and so on. For good leavers, negotiate all you like, however, if you have a good relationship with your direct report then you should probably have seen their notice coming: e.g. you knew about their life situation changing already, and your negotiation comes from a position of trying to help them more so that they are more likely to stay with you.

For bad leavers, try to gauge how far gone they already are. My own advice here would be to exercise caution. They likely would have sat on their issue in silence for a long time, and whether you like it or not, their trust in you and the company may have eroded significantly. For the effort that you will have to go through negotiating (i.e. removing an open headcount to create the budget to make a counter-offer, switching people around on teams at short notice to allow a team move to happen), you may end up in the same situation that you’re in again in the future. Mentally they may have already changed job, and reengaging a disgruntled employee can be very difficult. It’s your call, but be careful. They are not quite the same person that you hired.

And you’re still there after all

Whether your staff are leaving for good or bad reasons, you’re still there, and that can feel upsetting in the same way that it does when you lose a friend. It can be easy to feel isolated, or betrayed, or that you’ve let someone down to the point that they have departed.

Remember that if they leave for good reasons, it’s not your fault. If it’s for bad reasons, then you’ve learned a lesson and you’ll do better in future with everyone else on your team. And if you’re still feeling low, confide in other managers in your organization. They’ll have been there before.

You have a duty to facilitate others towards their career happiness, even if that happiness is found elsewhere and without you. It’s hard, but you’ll be remembered as a good boss.

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