The Right Way To Off-Board A Departing Employee

Human Resource Integrated Management System

Recently during a mentoring session, the manager asked how I would off-board a departing employee and how does that fit into the integrated HR philosophy? My client’s concern was activated when a valuable employee announced she was leaving. Immediately the manager began to worry about losing the departing employee’s institutional knowledge and experience. How can the manager oversee the transition in a way that helps to retain that expertise? Who should be involved? How far in advance of the employee’s end date do you need to start? And how do you motivate the departing colleague to cooperate?

In many organizations during the Great Resignation, the typical off-boarding process is a whirlwind of project wrap-ups, paperwork, and exit interviews. The manager might ask the departing employee to write something to share their knowledge, but often there’s just not enough time for that. Failing to capture the departing employee’s organizational-specific knowhow is shortsighted, especially if they have business critical, experienced-based knowledge. As important as onboarding and building loyalty is when a new employee is hired, we need to devote similar energy to what we do when employees leave. It can be easy to write off people who are departing, but there are many reasons to instead appreciate and support them. Fortunately, a lot of this know-how can be passed along if you make it a priority.

The keys to a good integrated HR philosophy are communication and expectation. Off-boarding is an information source for Job Analysis (JA) by gaining the departing employee’s expectations about the job. Remember that (JA) is one of the elements that feeds directly into the Performance Appraisal (PA) of in integrated philosophy. (JA) is also used during the Selection (S) process to communicate the employer’s expectations and is a large part of the Training & Development (T&D) program. So, you should view off-boarding as a wealth of information to improve and communicate the employer job expectations. Here’s how:

Make A Plan

Your first step is to lay out how you will transfer the knowledge, to whom you will transfer the knowledge, and along what timeline. If you have a say in the matter, ask the departing employee to give you a couple of months’ notice. Doing so gives you time to identify and hire a qualified replacement whether that person is an internal candidate or an external applicant. That may not be possible, but get as much time as you can. Then, you and the departing employee must work together to figure out the scope of information that needs to be transferred. Ask, how much of this knowledge has never been captured or documented and used during the (S) and (T&D) processes? This information will help you come up with improved (T&D) learning plans for your team and the individual’s successor. Bear in mind that the more unarticulated the knowledge, the more time you’ll need to pass it along.

Motivate The Departing Employee

The next step in the process is to encourage the departing employee to share their knowledge. When someone tells you they are leaving, listen to what they have to say about why. Respect the fact that they’ve initiated this difficult conversation and are sharing the reasons for this potentially disruptive change to their life. Are they leaving their job, team, or manager; or are they leaving for the opportunity? You might discover there are issues about which you were previously unaware, and, while this conversation may have come too late to keep this particular employee from leaving, you may be able to improve the workplace — and retention — for remaining employees. If the departing employee is really unhappy with the organization, sharing their knowledge can be a challenge. But, if they are just somewhat reluctant, you need to find out why. It could be that they are humble or unaware of their expertise. Or perhaps, they don’t know how to teach others what they know. In these cases, it’s your job to help them to transfer knowledge in a structured way.

Create Apprenticeships

If you have some time for a transition, I suggest creating a carefully constructed action plan of learning, whereby the highly skilled, deep smarts departing employee is paired with one or more replacements so the replacements can observe them in action, learn and practice new skills, and receive feedback on their performance. Consider it an accelerated apprenticeship. The learner might sit in on a conference call to hear how the departing employee pitches clients or attend a meeting to observe them soliciting input from colleagues in another department.  After a period of shadowing, give successors a series of “mini-experiences” so they can try doing the tasks on their own. We don’t learn deeply by checklists or lectures…we learn by doing.

Emphasize Team Learning

If you’re really short on time and you don’t have an identified successor, I recommend holding a meeting in which the departing employee shares stories with colleagues about how they handled problems and crises that arose during their tenure. This exploratory question and answer session should be conducted by a skilled facilitator. The goal is to reveal insights into the departing employee’s thought process and help team members absorb information. Questions such as: Who did you consult before you made this decision and what alternatives did you consider, should be encouraged. You should go through these scenarios in a structured way and in enough detail so that a pattern emerges. The most effective knowledge transfer involves communication. I recommend asking the departing employee how they learned what they know…this acts as a check on how the employer’s (T&D) program is working. Ask what they read, which websites they visit, and whom do they talk to…this insight can help understand the type of person you are seeking during the (S) process. The goal is to “speed up the learning” of the remaining team members.

Selectively Document 

I have always been skeptical of off-boarding processes that require the departing employee to compose a hefty “here’s-how-to-do-my-job manual.” Too often, the person doesn’t bother to write it up, and even when they do, no one ever reads it. This is (JA) at it worst! However, I do think selective record keeping can be helpful. I recommend that apprentices and team members try to capture the departing employee’s knowledge by keeping “learning logs” of information that, in some cases, can later be entered into a job description through the (JA) process.

Focus On The Relationship

The best way to retain the expertise of a departing employee is to maintain a relationship with them. You might go to the departing employee with the occasional question, engage them as a consultant or hire them back someday.   Remember that companies who bring back former employees benefit from their deep familiarity with culture and processes, saving the expense of having to train an entirely new hire (at a cost of as much as six to nine months of the departing person’s salary). The rehire also brings with them the experience, expertise, and contacts they have gained while away. So set the right tone during the off-boarding process. Even if you don’t work together again, the departing employee still serves as a “brand ambassador” who could refer business or job candidates. Don’t accuse people of disloyalty for leaving. Let them know you love them and that you want to keep in touch. It’s not an exit, it’s the beginning of the next phase. People who are leaving a company want to feel good about the place they’re leaving. Those who remain will see that the company cares about its workers as people, not just as cogs in a machine that are easily ignored or discarded when they cease to be useful. And employees who have been sent out on a supportive note might just recommend your organization to talented workers they meet in the future, creating a new network of talent from which to draw.

Be Prepared For The Next Time

The off-boarding process goes much more smoothly if you already have tools and systems in place to ensure that knowledge is constantly being transferred from departing employees to successors. That way, if the proverbial bus were to run over the employee, you’re not left in the lurch. For example, the kind of concentrated job shadowing discussed above doesn’t need to be reserved for off-boarding purposes. As the manager, you should always create opportunities for less-seasoned colleagues to work side-by-side with your resident experts. This is the on-going part of the (T&D) process. The objective for the less-experienced employee is to learn how the resident expert gets things done; the goal for the resident expert is to mentor, which is part of their leadership development. Of course, you will find some employees are disinclined to teach others how to do their jobs because they want to be seen as irreplaceable. But, you can’t afford to have an employee with a monopoly on company-specific knowledge. To prevent this, training and coaching should be part of the promotion process expectation or an incentive for phased retirement. Employees should need to prove that they’ve trained their backfill.

Stay In Touch 

Your efforts shouldn’t stop after a key employee walks out the door. Keep in contact. Drop them the occasional line asking how they are. If you see them at industry events, or on social media, reach out. If you happen to visit their new city, offer to take them to lunch. These kinds of touch points show that even when they’re off the payroll, they’re still a valued member of the company’s extended community. It’s another chance to show genuine caring. 

Several years ago, I was able to put this learning into practice. When a talented director on my team let me know she was leaving, I was dismayed. But I understood the value of the career choice she was making and thanked her for what she had done for us. I made sure she knew the door was open for her to return but that I supported her growth and development even if she never chose to do so. Interestingly, she reached out to me a couple of years later to see if there was a spot back on our team. 

We all know how important it is to show employees that they are valued. But more companies and managers should extend that appreciation to people long past their last day of work. When you give off-boarding the same care and consideration as onboarding, your team and organization are better positioned to thrive.

Principles to Remember

  • Do create opportunities for less-experienced colleagues to observe the senior employee in action;
  • Do encourage team members to keep a log of what they’ve learned from departing employees and, more importantly, to practice new skills and behaviors;
  • Do make training and coaching part of the promotion process in order to motivate employees to mentor possible successors before they leave
  • Don’t panic— determine the timeframe and the scope of the knowledge that needs transferring to figure out which strategies will work best for your team;
  • Don’t ask the departing expert to write a lengthy how-to manual…instead, ask them to share stories of how they handled problems in the past;
  • Don’t treat the person like a traitor for leaving the organization. Use the off-boarding process to demonstrate your respect.

For more thoughts on human resource management, view the free video entitled Human Resource Management.

Copyright ©John Trenary 2021

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