The topic on which I get the maximum number of questions is around how to handle exits. I would like to believe that most of these questions, and the responses, are pretty straight and clear to seasoned people managers. However, I have realised that in fast-paced and relatively young organisations, even the most seasoned managers struggle with handling exits. In this piece, I have put together some of the most common questions/situations, along with responses on how they need to be handled.
• “I am getting a lot of questions on XYZ’s exit. Can we know the reasons?” Or a senior manager might come up and inquire about a colleague’s separation saying, “I am not keen to know why, but my team members are asking me questions. What do I tell them?”
Set the basic behaviour expectations right with seniors. They cannot be allowed to palm off their personal curiosity as questions from their team. Read them the riot act on how to contain curiosity about other people’s compensation, reasons for other people’s separations, etc. Handle the questions in a way they learn the futility of gaining such “knowledge”. Handle the questions in a way that they don’t come back with a similar question in the future. Handle the questions in a way that they can handle it when others reach out to them. Every human being is a political animal. Political behaviour can be nipped in the bud or encouraged. You should encourage leadership traits that nip politically motivated conversations and rumour in the bud.
• “We are letting the person go on performance grounds. Shouldn’t we let people in the company know about that, either very explicitly or maybe subtly? If we don’t do that, everyone might assume that s/he is leaving for better opportunities and that s/he was unhappy with the organisation on some count. It will also allow him/her to control the messaging by saying that s/he is leaving for better opportunities and maybe even badmouth the organisation?”
Most separations on performance grounds have very little structured documentation. HR folks might say performance improvement plans exist, but the reality is that at the end of the day, the individual under question is asked to resign. So, technically it is, in fact, voluntary. Performance is, after all, in a context. Someone who is a failure in one context could be a success in a different context. There is no need to brand someone as a failure and let the world know. If that happens, the separating individual can slap a legal notice on the organisation for damaging his/her reputation. You can’t control what s/he tells the rest of the world. You can’t control a lot of what anyone chooses to do. If it is a very senior executive, a release agreement would anyway have the detailed terms, including a clause that restricts both parties from bad-mouthing or defaming the other. And do we want to tell everyone that the person was let go on performance grounds just because we don’t want people to conclude that there is something wrong with the organisation?! Don’t underestimate the judgment of people. They will know whether the organisation is a great place to work or not, irrespective of the odd exit. Don’t underestimate the power of the grapevine. They will, in all likelihood, know the reasons for exit. They have all learnt to decipher and decode official statements. So don’t fret.
• We are letting XYZ go on grounds of integrity. Shouldn’t we tell the organisation, if not on mail, then at least verbally, so that it sets an example and acts as a deterrent for others?
No, you do not need the shoulders of those who have demonstrated poor integrity to drive high standards of integrity. That’s the sign of a weak organisation. The organisation could also end up in legal trouble if it tries to take such shortcuts by making examples of individuals and could damage their reputation in the process. There’s always the grapevine to carry such messages to support your efforts. Where the grapevine is carrying messages you don’t want it to, intervene, counter and clarify. Where the grapevine is carrying messages you want it to, stay silent. As I said in one of the other responses, do not underestimate the judgment of people and their ability to understand what’s really going on!
• A lot of managers don’t seem to know how to handle an exit amicably. Here are some of the common errors that managers make.
Managers sometimes stop treating the separating with respect. Or they stop acknowledging that the employee exists, exclude them from participation in activities. If you suspect that there is more harm in allowing a person in transit to stay and help with the transition, have a quick and clinical separation. But having decided to have a person stay and help with the transition, don’t treat him or her as persona non grata. How you treat a separating employee has a huge impact on what others think of you and what they can expect when they move. Treating separating employees with dignity, by acknowledging their right to separate without unnecessary discussion on their perceived opinions about the organisation, is a critical component of a good culture. Some organisations have a terrible reputation when it comes to dealing with separating employees, and such organisations generally have low employee morale; good people are reluctant to join them. Separated employees are some of your best brand ambassadors.
• One manager asked me, “I had put this team member of mine on a performance improvement plan (PIP) for two months. Now at the end of two months, I’ve figured out that this isn’t working. So I am asking her to leave. Why do I have to serve notice or pay salary in lieu of notice, because I had already served a two-month notice via a PIP?”
Sorry, you had not served notice when you put him or her on a PIP. If you were sincere about the PIP, then you wanted her or him to put in her best and show improvement. Did you expect them to start looking for a job when you put them on a PIP?! So the notice period starts the day you take the call to let her go!
• One manager asked me, “I had told this team member of mine around four months back that we are restructuring, and her role may not exist after that. The restructuring plan has now taken shape and I am asking her to go. Do I really need to serve notice or pay her in lieu of notice?”
Discussions on separation need to have an air of seriousness. They cannot be corridor conversations quoted later on that can result in “he said-she said” situations. They need to be documented. What was the need to have this casual discussion on restructuring four months before it took concrete shape? The notice period starts only after a firm and definitive communication to part ways!
• I have encountered situations where a manager comes up and says, “I haven’t documented any feedback but this person isn’t performing, so how do I ask this person to leave?” I have also encountered situations where a separated employee had escalated and on enquiring, the manager said that feedback had been provided and upon checking, discovered that no feedback had been provided.
Encourage every performance discussion to be documented in the form of a short email. Write down the gist of the feedback, actions agreed, and timelines. You don’t need more than 10 minutes to do this. This does not mean that you won’t provide spontaneous or verbal feedback. You will do this, but document every piece of formal performance feedback, especially if there is an issue with performance. An exit discussion is far easier to handle if it is a culmination of appropriate feedback. You don’t necessarily need to make the whole process bureaucratic.
• I feel sorry letting this person go. She is otherwise such a nice person. How do I tell her?
It is a pleasure being surrounded by nice people. However, in an organisation, performance is of paramount importance. The downside of allowing a non-performer to continue will quickly outweigh the positives of having a nice person around. When you decide to let go of a nice person, do not feel overwhelmed. Even if you do feel a little out of sorts and sad inside, do keep the discussion very precise and to the point. You can, of course, end it with something like, “Do let me know if I can be of any help.” But never say something like, “I feel so bad letting you go,” or “I wish the organisation’s policy was different and could make an exception,” or even “I wish I could have had my way and allowed you to continue till things were settled on your family front.” You need to be fair and give people a chance, but you need to be slightly detached when you take the call to let a person go.
Not many managers realise that the way they handle exits determines how the people who stay look at them and at the organisation. Most managers look at exits as a necessary evil that they need to somehow get over with. On the contrary, exits are great opportunities for sending the right messages across teams if they are handled with finesse and clarity.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)