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When Good Employees Leave You

When Good Employees Leave You


In my last blog post, I commented on the fact people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses. So much has been written about THAT phenomena, but not so much about the fact that sometimes people leave good companies, good bosses and good co-workers because it is the right move for them.

How can you tell the difference? When a valued employee is leaving, how do you know if it’s because of YOU, or simply because they are pursuing a new exciting opportunity, something that afforded them more challenging work, or better pay, or a relocation that would be good for their family? And, importantly, how do you react to each?

I’ve experienced both situations.  And I now know which is which and the part I’ve played in each.

If you’ve read my blog posts or my book, Lunch with Lucy, you’ll know that I led a company that was known for its employee-centric culture. So, you might ask, “If that was such a great place to work, if she was such a stellar leader, why were there situations where someone left because of a bad boss – it seems contradictory.”

Well, you know what they say about hindsight, right? It’s so true! Now, almost four years since I sold my first company, LetterLogic, I still think about times when I failed employees, where I could have been a better boss.   Let me tell you about one of those situations and what I’d do differently now.

“Cameron” was a good employee – quiet, reserved, but fully engaged, always going the extra mile to tend to the customers in his care. He also got along beautifully with his co-workers, and had their respect and their backs. He’d never hesitated to stay late when needed and would do so without being asked. When his supervisor told me he was leaving, I was disappointed because Cameron was exactly the type of person we wanted to attract and keep and there were good growth opportunities for him within the company. The supervisor said the employee was “burnt out” and wanted to take a few months off to decide what he wanted to do next.  He didn’t have another job lined up. I didn’t question the explanation.

It was a few weeks later that I started asking myself WHY an employee was getting “burnt out”. What was the culture in that department (and my company) that created an atmosphere that led to a person being drained, exhausted, to the point that they left a job with no other job waiting for them? He wasn’t leaving for a new opportunity. He was leaving to ESCAPE. If that doesn’t say bad boss, what else does?

So, what were the warning signs that I should have seen? Now, it’s all too obvious. Cameron’s supervisor was a very charismatic, fun, VP-level leader, someone you immediately wanted to hang out with, socialize with after work, etc. Well, at least on a good day. But on a bad day…watch out. On a bad day, the supervisor was short tempered, hostile, and condescending.

I can’t say I didn’t know it, because even though I was the founder and CEO, I’d been on the receiving end of their wrath. Heck, I’d even been YELLED at by them! But a few days later, they’d sweetly apologize for their bad behavior and  I’d find myself examining my own actions and words and wonder how I might have been the cause. Looking back, I can liken it to a husband who belittles and verbally abuses his wife, but then he shows up with some roses the next day and she forgives him, thinking about what she did that caused the problem in the first place. He gets off scot-free. And he’ll do it again.

In addition to the volatile personality of the department leader, there was another problem that I neglected to see. Rarely did the person promote others. There were some marginal promotions but the most stellar individuals in their orbit were never promoted or highly praised. Interesting. And when I praised them and suggested ways to broaden their role and influence, the supervisor pointed out their flaws and said they weren’t ready.

So, when Cameron left, I should have seen the warning signs! I should have realized that the supervisor was not living our company values, that they were selfish and narcissistic. That they were not leading with empathy. That no amount of charisma could make up for the lack of  humility and generosity of spirit. And, telling was this:   Cameron told the HR director about his decision first. If he’d still trusted me to do the right thing by him, he’d have come to me first.

Cameron left two bad bosses. He left his supervisor who’d held him back, who’d overworked him, who’d berated him and marginalized him, who’d withheld promotions and praise. That was “bad boss” #1.

I remember the day I finally realized how bad the supervisor was and confided to my husband: “Why didn’t I see this? How were they able to dupe me into thinking they were a good leader?” My husband didn’t mince his words: “You weren’t deceived. There were a half dozen times over the past few years when you told me about their egregious behavior and disrespect of you and others. The narcissism has always been there. But you chose to look the other way because their good qualities and skills were valuable to you.” Hmmm. He was right. And my allowing it to happen made me an even worse boss. “Bad Boss” #2. No wonder Cameron left us.

But what about a situation where a good employee leaves for all the right reasons? What will you do when it happens to you? Imagine that its someone that’s been with you a while…and you’ve invested time and money in training them. You’ve seen them grow in their role to become exactly what you needed them to be. You’ve had customers gush about them and how much value they bring to your organization, and theirs by extension. You’ve given them promotions and raises. You’ve celebrated their birthday. You know their spouse. Heck, they actually attended YOUR wedding, and now, after all you’ve done for them, they’re leaving you?

What will you do?

The first instance that comes to mind is the story of Darius. He’d been with us over 5 years, and had been promoted from production employee to director of production…and then into the IT department, learning to write code! We’d also hired his brother and mother. He was a dream employee. Smart. Dedicated. Hardworking.  Empathetic with his co-workers. In fact, he’d won the coveted Family Member of the Year Award – an annual award determined by the employees – his coworkers, given to the individual who most consistently lived the company’s values throughout the year. The prize for this annual honor: An all-expense-paid vacation to the resort of his choice, plus $1000 in cash.

When Darius won the award and chose his destination, we were floored. Previous winners had gone to Atlantis in the Bahamas; to Cabo San Lucas; to Dubai! But Darius? Darius chose Disney World. Not that there’s anything wrong with Disney, but come on!! And then, we found out why Darius chose Disney. Because his fiancee’s son Christon, then about 5, had never been and wanted to go. So, Darius chose Disney so he could bring joy and wonder to a five-year-old. That made us all melt and reinforced why he’d won the honor in the first place.

Now, a few years past that milestone, Darius invited me to lunch to tell me his news: He was leaving us. Notice that he trusted me enough to come to me first. He was ready to move on to another industry, one that might provide more challenges. Was I angry? NO! I was thrilled. Why? Because I wanted him to be all he could be, to expand his horizons, to move on to something bigger and better for him and his family.

So what did we do? We threw him a going-away party! We hosted a goodbye celebration for him at a local cantina. There were beers…and tears…lots of hugs, and great memories rehashed. Now, several years later, Darius has his own business and he and I remain friends. Friends for life.

This is the thing: When good employees leave you to move on to their version of bigger and better, it is a GOOD THING! It’s kind of like raising your kid and sending them off to college. Of course you’ll miss them! But you know it is the right thing for them…and so you celebrate. And when you do, you set them up with the confidence to go boldly into their new venture.

Anytime an employee leaves you, learn from the experience! Have that exit interview and ask the tough questions, even if you are afraid of the answer. Learning why they are leaving can help you make changes that create a healthier environment for all…and help you hold on to great people. Here are a few key questions to ask in an exit interview:

  1. On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely are you to recommend this company as a good place to work?
  2. On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely are you to recommend your supervisor?
  3. What is the one thing I could have done to make your experience here more meaningful?
  4. What was the best part of your job? What was the worst part?
  5. Would you ever think about coming back to us? If so, what changes would you want us to make first?

(Of course, a good boss is asking all these questions waaay before a person gives their resignation. A good boss is asking the questions and then…listening. And acting.)  

When people leave you, celebrate their contributions to the company. Celebrate their unique skills and traits. Honor them by giving them a warm send-off.

And, it’s never too late to eat a big ‘ol piece of humble pie. In the midst of writing this blog today, I reached out to Cameron and apologized for not protecting him. I’m still a work in progress.

If you’re wondering what happened with Cameron’s supervisor, stayed tuned for a future blog about necessary endings.