Everyone will leave your organization. (But that’s OK!)
At some point, whether it is tomorrow or thirty years from now, every single person will leave. By denying this reality, we too often set ourselves up for frustration, confusion, or poor performance. By embracing the reality that every role and every organization is a step along a path for the people who work there, we can create structures and expectations that maintain stability, peace, and confidence during staff transitions.
Regardless of how much advance preparation has been done, when you realize someone is moving on, it’s easy to react quickly and make mistakes that can upset the organization further or damage the rest of your team. Here are a set of eight In-the-Moment action steps you can take right away when someone departs.
Action 1: Celebrate accomplishments and transitions. Don’t burn the bridge.
First, understand that when an employee decides to leave your organization, the first feeling you and many other team members may feel is negative – abandonment, anger, loss, betrayal, and fear. This is natural and happens any time a group of people spends time together and then breaks apart. But there is no upside in feeding into those negative emotions or attacking your departing employee – even if they were not fitting well with the team or succeeding in their work.
Instead, take the transition as an opportunity to celebrate the individual’s tenure with the team, express excitement and support for what they will do next, and set them up to leave with a positive feeling about your organization. This builds more strength for the remaining team members in the future. Taking this positive stance also encourages the departing employee to be more supportive in the transition period (especially if it’s long). It increases the chances that that person will either return to your organization down the road or they will encourage friends or colleagues to consider applying for the role being vacated. After all, if they were successful in the role, they probably know similar people who might also be successful!
It is, of course, much easier to celebrate a transition if some of the In-Advance Staff Transition Actions have been employed, so the sense of crisis from the transition is less.
Action 2: Determine if you need to hire someone new or promote from within.
The instant reaction to a departure is to want to ‘replace the person who left’ and hire someone to do the exact same role. However, over time the role may have evolved, and the team or the business needs may have changed since the role was last defined. Taking a moment to consider the structure of the role in the context of your whole organization can be valuable. It may open the door to a strategic rebuild opportunity that can make everyone more effective than before the transition. This can also result in an entirely different job description based on your organization’s needs.
The departure may also be an opportunity to promote or transfer someone in the organization into that role and hire for a different or more entry-level role instead. Ignoring this possibility may mean you miss the chance to have an easier transition to more complex responsibilities and may also have negative morale implications for other staff who would like the opportunity to shift but haven't been invited to discuss that possibility.
Action 3: Triad around the transitional role.
When a role is temporarily vacant or a new person has just been hired, often the entire weight of the transition lands solely on the new hire or on the new hire and one other colleague who is responsible for training. Organizational team research emphasizes that triads (collaborative groups of three) are more supportive and less fragile than people alone or in dyads (teams of two). Establishing a support team of three also acknowledges the extra effort and work it takes for someone to transition into a new role and allows more sharing of daily responsibilities. Your team of three could be:
The new hire and two colleagues who work directly with the role and who can support in different ways;
The new hire, an immediate colleague, and a third person from another departmentwith the ability to help onboard in context of how their work interfaces with other areas;
The new hire, an immediate colleague, and a third person whose role whose role is to look for gaps in function or service and in the more holistic human experience of the new hire as part of ongoing organizational design.
Setting a period of time where the three members of the triad will meet consistently and all have responsibilities during the transition can also anchor the new hire into the organization more fully, setting up a more team-based culture rather than a task-based culture where the new employee feels they are on their own all the time.
Action 4: Establish time, focus, and acceptance for things that will be dropped.
Some things the previous employee was doing will be dropped. There will be mistakes. There will be disruptive changes to customers or other parts of the organization. Transition is change, and even the most well-managed change will be a little messy.
Set the expectation with the whole team that this reality exists and is normal. Encourage everyone to be on the lookout for potential issues and to raise them to the transition triad right away. By voicing this clearly and to everyone, this teamwork can be done in the spirit of support and helpfulness and not in a way that creates even more pressure on the new hire or their supervisor to ‘get it all right’ from the start.
It can also be helpful for your whole team to emphasize that the focus is to help identify problems or missed steps, illuminate those for the good of the operations of the organization, the team, and the customers, and not to try to force the new hire to replicate the way ‘the last person used to do it’. This focus on supporting impact and outcomes, rather than on how the new person does things, keeps everyone focused on working together and can help the new person feel like an essential part of the team and not just an inferior replacement to the person who has left.
Action 5: Communicate the transition to external constituents to adjust expectations.
You want your community to have confidence in ongoing effective activities, but pretending that nothing has changed can actually communicate the opposite, especially when something changes, gets disrupted, or is missed.
Communicate clearly with relevant constituents about the transition and how it is being handled. This will help people feel like the organization is being thoughtfully supported and will connect to how they feel supported as well. Having a visible triad of responsibility for the transitional period gives people clear and visible points of contact should they need help during the hiring process or with the brand new staff member. Communicating actively and consistently including about how they can deal with problems that arise will also build more connections with constituents. A transition can make their relationship with the team much stronger and not reliant on a single link.
Action 6: Consider the capacity of the full team and beware of overload.
If the rest of the team is already at full capacity with their other work, any additional effort or time needed for taking on more responsibilities (even short term), managing a hiring process, or training others can put them into overload and overstress.
A moment of staff transition is not the time to alienate other staff and risk further departures or morale issues when you are already understaffed. This becomes particularly acute if there are any delays to the hiring process, which can happen for various reasons and can leave other team members ‘holding the bag’.
The best way to avoid this is the In-Advance Action of maintaining ongoing cushion for transitions and disruptions. If that isn’t the current situation, management needs to recognize that when an employee is put into overload and actively sees what other tasks or responsibilities can be shifted to more distant team members, handled by short-term additional support (temp workers, outsourcing) or that can be put on hold for a time while the other responsibilities have intervened.
Active dialogue with the support team throughout the transition is important to deal with the naturally less stable and higher stress situation.
Action 7: Compensate people for added work.
A transitional period where one employee has left, and a hiring/training process is underway should not be seen as an opportunity for financial savings.
While a new employee may come in at a lower rate due to seniority, and there may be a gap in having someone on the payroll for the position, the role's responsibilities continue. Unless there is a distinct reduction in services or products (and associated revenues) while the role is transitioning, it is likely that your other team members are picking up the slack so that the business operations can continue.
Being highly aware of that added effort needed from other team members is essential, and using some of the financial savings (if they exist) to provide a temporary salary increase or a bonus to those pitching in extra in the interim shows an appreciation for the rest of your team and builds loyalty that provides for a better transition and lowers overall turnover.
Action 8: Appreciate that transitioning in someone new takes time.
In addition to having a triad transitional team around the role, it is always helpful for new hires to phase into their responsibilities.
A new team member may start their first day faced with a mountain of things to learn, issues to address, and no clear sense of priorities. The triad team can start by prioritizing each set of duties so that the new hire can tackle them thoughtfully. This can feel less overwhelming, let the new hire progress naturally through their learning cycles, and also can help the rest of the team understand clearly which tasks they need to continue to own and support during the initial phases of onboarding before they can fully hand them over to the new person.
For some roles, only a few onboarding phases over a short period may be needed. In contrast, for more complex roles that have seasonal or annual components, the phases may extend out over the entire first year of employment or longer.
The other advantage to a phased onboarding approach is that it allows the new hire to feel like they are having a progressing series of wins and accomplishments that they can celebrate and feel good about. When they are handed all responsibilities on the first day, they can end up feeling like they are just shoveling work into a ‘giant hole of can’t, trying frantically to get everything figured out before it swallows them. A thoughtful onboarding process should end with the new hire feeling accomplished and confident in all their duties, not exhausted and unsure from being rushed into free-standing responsibility before they are ready.
In Creative Evolutions' Executive Search processes, for example, we facilitate the creation of a year long transitional plan for new executives, created with shared input of the staff and board and shared with potential candidates.
Overall, all of these transitional strategies emphasize that a business or organization is a living, breathing group of human beings who are working together on a daily basis. The more we think of our work as transitioning human beings in and out of a living ecosystem and less as running a ‘machine’ that needs replacement parts, the more effective we can navigate transitions without damaging morale, disrupting business activity, or alienating our customers and employees.
In addition to these In-the-Moment Staff Transition Actions, organizations can prepare to take a set of In-Advance Staff Transition Actions as well, to lay the groundwork for the transitions that are always coming.
Creative Evolutions uses these principles regularly to support staff culture and hiring work for a variety of creative organizations. For information on how our team can work with you, or for more about this process and other ways you can approach staffing, contact Creative Evolutions!
Read More: In-Advance Staff Transitions Roadmap by Calida Jones and Douglas Clayton
Image Credit: Canva, Douglas Clayton, Calida Jones
DeTolve, Nicki, "Triads, Triads, Triads," CultureSync, 13 October 2010, https://culturesync.net/triads-triads-triads/
Special Thanks for Supporting this Roadmap: Cindy Jenkins, Donald Holmes