How to Manage Morale When a Well-Liked Employee Leaves

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It’s a dreadful moment when a well-liked member of your team tenders their resignation. You experience a cocktail of emotions ranging from fear about how the rest of the team will react, to frustration at having to add recruiting to your already hectic calendar.  The worst is the lingering feeling of being rejected. As with most difficult situations as a manager, how you handle the resignation will affect more than just you. How you respond will influence whether the person’s departure becomes a typical bump in the road or the inflection point to a downward trend for your team.

Before sharing the news with anyone, take some time to consider your response carefully. This allows you to grapple with your own reactions before you’re forced to manage those of your team members. If you move too quickly and try to communicate a positive message while harboring anxiety, frustration, or bitterness, those potent emotions will show through in your body language. When your words are positive but your body language telegraphs concern, your team will notice the incongruence and infer your intent from what you’re showing rather than what you’re saying.

Once you’ve reflected on your own reaction, you can work through a process that will minimize the damage of a well-liked team member resigning.

Start by helping everyone celebrate the person who is leaving. It’s understandable if you feel like downplaying the person’s departure, in hopes that no one will notice. It just isn’t likely to work. Losing a well-liked colleague will create concern and even grief for your team and invalidating that grief removes an important part of the process. Letting the person slip out the door unheralded will suggest that you don’t care. Don’t make the mistake of minimizing the moment.

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Instead, be at the front of the “we’ll miss you” parade. Throw a party to wish the person well. Say a few words about some of the great things the person contributed to the team. Laugh about inside jokes and shared experiences because, as you do, you’ll not only make the person who’s leaving feel good about your team, you’ll strengthen the bond among the people who remain.

Recalling these stories will also put a smile on your face, which is much better than the look of terror that might be associated with your inner voice that’s saying, “What will we do without her?” or “What if others start to follow suit?” That face will only make your team more nervous when they’re looking to you for reassurance. Your words and body language should convey that it’s normal and natural for people to move on.

Once you’ve thrown the party the person deserves, ask them for a favor in return — their candor about what you need to learn from their departure. Even if your organization has a formal third-party exit interview process, conduct your own interview. Ask the person to be honest with you as part of the legacy they can leave in making you and the team better in the future. Prepare your questions carefully and get ready to take the lumps.

You’ll need to have good questions and follow-up prompts to get past the pat answers such as “I was offered higher compensation” and “It’s an opportunity I couldn’t refuse.” You need to identify what factors contributed to the person taking the call from the recruiter in the first place. You can make these questions less pointed by asking, “What advice would you give me to prevent another great person like you from taking a call from a recruiter?” “What do I need to know that people aren’t telling me?” “How could I improve the experience of working here?” By making the questions more generic and less personal, the departing employee might feel more inclined to share any uncomfortable truth.

You can also seek feedback about things beyond your control, such as, “What other messages does the company need to hear?” “What factors would contribute to a better experience here?” Throughout the discussion, your emphasis should be on asking great questions. Do as little talking as possible and instead, listen carefully and objectively.

After the exit interview, your head will be full of powerful, sometimes conflicting thoughts and feelings. Give yourself a night to sleep on it and then start the process of putting your insights into action. First, lean into the uncomfortable conversations. Whether one-on-one or in team meetings, dig into any themes that have merit. Share your hypotheses and ask people to clarify, refine, validate, or challenge how you’re thinking.

For example, you could say, “I’m coming to understand that the biggest problem is not the workload, but the lack of focus. What do you think? Is it true, false, or only half the picture?” This process of generating and testing hypotheses will not only help you make the most targeted changes, it will also help you strengthen the connection with your remaining team members.

As you listen to their responses, go beneath the facts and information they’re sharing with you and watch and listen for what they are feeling and what they value. Where does their language become stronger (e.g., “we always do this,” or “never do that”), suggesting that they are frustrated or angry. Where does it become weaker (e.g., “I guess we…, or “I think sometimes we might”), hinting that they might feel hesitant or powerless. What is their body language telling you? When you spot an emotional reaction, ask a few more questions to understand what’s beneath their feelings.

Through all of these conversations, try to discern whether one great person resigning was a single point or the start of a pattern. Be open about what you can do differently and advocate for the changes from other stakeholders that will make your team a better one to work on.

The insights you glean from conducting your own exit interview and testing your hypotheses will be valuable, but don’t lose sight of the most important ways that you contribute to the morale of your team — by positioning them to do meaningful work. Double down on the management essentials. Make sure everyone is clear on your expectations, especially on the highest (and lowest) priorities for the team. Have frank conversations to ensure people feel like they have the requisite skills and resources to do their jobs well. And pay more attention to the feedback, coaching, and celebrations that will motivate them and keep them engaged.

If there was a problem on your team you were unaware of (or trying to ignore) it might take losing a well-liked employee for you to recognize the severity of the issue. Work through your emotions and then start a virtuous cycle by celebrating the departing employee, seeking their candid feedback in an exit interview, forming and testing hypotheses about how to improve your workplace, and making meaningful changes that make your team feel heard and valued. Losing one team member might end up being a relatively low price to pay if it leads to better morale all around.

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Over the last several decades, women have made tremendous gains in many professions. Women physicians, for instance, were a rarity in the 1960s. Today, about 35% of physicians are women, and the representation will only increase as women—who constitute over half of new medical students—proceed through the career pipeline. Women have made similar gains in professions such as law, veterinary science, and dentistry.

But progress has lagged in other fields. Only 18% of new computer science grads are women, and a paltry 11% of top corporate executives are women. What is holding women back? What can be done to help more women enter and achieve parity in these predominantly male fields?

There are many possible reasons for the gender gaps. They include gender biases and “bro culture” that can make male-dominated environments unwelcoming to women. Another possible explanation is that the gender gap is itself to blame—women don’t get enough support because there aren’t many other women around. Perhaps women would benefit from simply having more women among their peers.

There is some evidence supporting this. Studies show that women in undergraduate engineering programs with more female graduate mentors are more likely to continue in the major, and women who are friends with high-performing women are more likely to take advanced STEM courses.

But these studies are limited. It may be that women aren’t benefiting from the support, but that women with greater commitment to a field tend to gravitate toward similar women. This is what economists refer to as the problem of selection bias, which makes it unclear whether the peer group is what causes success. Another issue is that some surprising studies show that women’s success is actually hampered by having more female peers. This can happen when women are put in positions where they must compete with one another, because of quotas, for example, so having more women around actually makes it harder to succeed.

How do we know whether women actually help other women? Ideally, we would do something like a medical experiment where women are randomly assigned to treatment and control groups. Women in the treatment group would have women peers, and women in the control group would not. If women in the treatment group do better than women in the control group, then we have good reason to conclude that the relation is cause-and-effect.

Such opportunities for randomization are rare, but we found one. We took a cue from economist David Lyle, who recognized that student cadets at military academies are randomly assigned to peer groups called cadet companies. This can create a natural experiment for studying peer effects without concern about selection bias.

West Point

The United States Military Academy at West Point is a four-year college founded in 1802. Its mission is to train cadets to be Army officers, and the program is challenging. Standards are high and cadets’ performance is closely monitored. The student body (or Corps of Cadets) is structured as a hierarchy comparable to the Army. It is divided into four regiments, which are each divided into three battalions, which are each divided into three companies. There are 36 companies, each contain about 32 cadets per class, or about 128 members in total.

We studied the classes of 1981 to 1984, the second through fifth graduating classes that included women. In those years, cadets had few opportunities to interact with the outside world. There was no email, internet or cellphones. External communication involved snail mail or a shared pay phone. Cadets were isolated within the Academy as well. They were required to live, have meals, and participate in activities with their own companies. Opportunities to interact with cadets in outside regiments were even more limited.

Many graduates recall a brutal freshman year at West Point. Senior-ranking cadets are charged with instructing more junior cadets in military protocol and disciplining them for infractions. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, this often amounted to severe hazing.

When women first entered West Point in 1976, there was considerable controversy. Women were often singled out for particularly harsh treatment, though there was substantial variation across the student body. And with an average of 103 women spread across the academy each year, compared to 1,146 men, women had little opportunity to interact with other women. Not surprisingly, women’s attrition rates were about five percentage points higher than men’s on average—a big difference when attrition rates for men are only about 8.5 percent.

Women and Peer Groups at West Point

We collected our data from the 1976 to 1984 West Point yearbooks, which contain group photos of cadets by company and class; these were our peer groups. With this information, we were able to track each cadet’s randomly-assigned peer group by gender, and their progression from year to year.

We found that, when another woman was added to a company, it increased the likelihood a woman would progress from year to year by 2.5%. This means that, on average, an extra two women in a company on top of what it already had would completely erase the five percentage point female/male progression gap.

Another way to think about the size of the effect is to consider only first-year cadets, who have the worst attrition rates. Women in first-year groups with only one other woman only had a 55% chance of sticking around for the next year. But women in the most woman-heavy groups, with 6 to 9 other women, had an 83% chance of continuing to the next year.

One concern, however, is that while the addition of more women helps other women, it may make men less likely to progress. But, when we compared results for men with results for women, we found no effect of women peers on men, positive or negative. In other words, there was only an upside to increasing the number of women in the group.

Beyond West Point of the 1980s

Unlike other studies, the natural randomization of cadets to companies has made it possible for us to say that there is a substantial benefit to women from having women peers. But West Point of the 1980s was unusual. How would these results apply more generally?

Things have changed considerably at the institution in the past 40 years. In 1990 a woman was appointed to the prestigious position of First Captain—the lead cadet of the entire student body, and 22% of the incoming class of 2020 were women. Extreme hazing has been eliminated, and cadets have more opportunities to interact with friends and family outside and other cadets within the Academy. The need for support may have changed as the experience has eased.

There are many other reasons that these results may not carry over to a college or workplace of 2018. There is greater awareness now of the challenges that women face when they are in a small minority and greater willingness of leaders to mitigate the challenges. It would be interesting to see what a similar study would show in a corporate workplace. Until that time, the best evidence is that attending to gender when assigning women to groups can be a powerful tool for increasing the representation of women in male-dominated fields.

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