How to deal with a key employee leaving your business

What happens when your star employee up and walks away from your business?

Even worse, what if they go to a rival?

It’s a question being asked by all sorts of organisations, including AFL clubs where free agency has thrown up more and more surprising club moves.

For both footy teams and small businesses, the effects of having a star player move on can be absolutely huge.

If the key employee walking out the door is client-facing, the effect on a business is all the more pronounced.

HR expert, Sue-Ellen Watts told The Pulse that the best things businesses can do is accept that key people will leave at some point, and that more often than not you won’t see it coming.

“The big issue is that we don’t even know that they’re having discussions with anyone else until it’s too late,” said Watts.

She said having regular conversations with team members about their goals, aspirations, and dreams was a great thing, but doing this in a formal setting in the guise of a performance review had a limited effect.

Instead, she suggests while maintaining some sort of formal process for two-way feedback and evaluation that the real value is in making sure you’re constantly talking to employees about what they’re after with the role.

“What I’m seeing, particularly in small businesses, is that we don’t spend enough time catching up with our people one on one,” said Watts.

“The whole idea of having a performance review once a year is just ridiculous. I think we need to have fewer formal conversations and more regular casual conversations.”

Why do people leave?

People now leave businesses sooner and more regularly, particularly if they’re younger.

Expecting people to stay with your business with five to ten years is setting yourself up for disappointment.

The key reason why people leave jobs, in the majority of cases, doesn’t come down to how a person is being paid.

This bears out in Watts’ experience when conducting exit interviews.

“Often we find that training and the way they’re being managed are the key reasons they go,” said Watts. “They’re not getting the chance to develop and learn, or they’re not being managed in the right way.”

She also said a business making a counter-offer based on giving the employee more cash very rarely worked, and in the majority of cases when the counter-offer was accepted they were out the door within six months anyhow.

It’s the intangible things people are looking for from a role which are borne out from having regular contact with your employee about their role.

Risky business

Assuming a key piece of talent is leaving your organisation – and there’s nothing you can do about it – the key is to be prepared.

Watts advises that businesses should undertake a risk audit, outlining the role and responsibilities of each person.

The question to ask is: how will the business be affected if X left the business tomorrow?

Are there certain tasks that only they can do? Do they have a stable of clients that will need to be looped in on what’s happening?

After the audit, you will have a rough idea of the skills and capabilities you need to cover in the short and medium term should a person leave, which leaves you in a better position to formulate a plan.

The best thing an employer can do when somebody crucial to the organisation leaves is to conduct an exit interview.

You can do this yourself, but an external party will often get more honest feedback on an employee’s time with your business.

A person leaving a business is rarely a cause for celebration, but any experience is useful experience if you can learn from it.

What to do next

It can be unsettling when a fellow employee leaves the business and we’re left in the dark about why they’re leaving.

The result of the information vacuum can be office gossip – magnifying the grievances the employee may have had.

Instead, by being as open and transparent as you can about why a person left, you can fill the information vacuum and manage the narrative.

“When people receive that information, the first thing people are going to think about is how it affects them,” said Watts.

Having a plan in place for what happens next is also invaluable.

“Giving employees information about what you’re going to do to cover that person’s absence is a great thing,” said Watts.

“So offer information like, ‘this person is leaving on this day, we’re starting recruitment on this day, we expect to have someone new on board at this time…’”

Finally, if the star employee is leaving for a rival, it’s time to remind them of any IP protection or confidentiality clauses in their contract.

“They can’t protect you fully, but can protect you to a point,” Watts said. “When anybody leaves, I always re-iterate the points in the contract to them.”

Finally, it’s time to rally the troops.

“Whenever anything negative in the business happens, whether that’s losing a key account or key talent, getting people together really is the first step,” said Watts.

“You may even be able to offer a chance for other employees to step up to the plate to fill the shortage. I think that’s a positive way to frame it.”