Why We Need to Treat Departing Employees Better as They Head Out The Door

Here’s something I’ve learned from years of management: There are two key days that employee’s judge the organization on — their first day at work, and their last.

The first day of work has been getting a lot of attention as everyone seems to be focusing on the importance of onboarding, and that’s a good thing given how critical it is that your new people get off on the right foot. Companies have — rightly — been spending a great deal of energy and effort on that.

But, how many organizations spend any time focusing on how they treat employees on their LAST day on the job?

You know the answer to that: Very few.

The problem with the last day on the job

In my own career — and I’ve worked a number of places over a number of years — I can’t recall many departing employees who had a good last day on the job.

Over the years, I’ve seen last days go like this:

  • They’re ignored — the departing employee gets little to no attention at all from management, and sometimes not even much from their peers in the workforce;
  • They’re escorted out — this usually happens when someone quits to go to a competitor, or when management is worried about the possibility of proprietary information getting revealed. It makes the departing feel like a criminal, or worse;
  • They make a scene — bad feelings and pent-up emotion can lead some employees to make a statement on their way out the door — like the executive described in The Wall Street Journal who “quit his job by donning a raccoon costume, walking into a staff meeting and dropping his company cell phone in front of his boss with the words “I quit” on the screen.”
  • They don’t come in — it may be bad form, but some employees simply decide to bag their last day and not come in at all, a very unprofessional way to wrap up your tenure somewhere.

A key element to your company culture

I’ve been thinking of employee departures recently because of my own recent job departure, and, due to a recent LinkedIn article titled How Do You Help Your Employees Leave on a Good Note? 

What struck me about this article was the fact that it made the case that it is important for the organization to make sure employees end up their work with you on a positive note because it is critically important to your organization and culture. And, it made this case by having various executives explain what they do with departing employees to ensure that they leave on a good note.

I never cease to be amazed that so many companies that pride themselves on their strong culture values are so cavalier about how they handle departing employees. Yes, some treat the departing badly, but that tends to be the exception. What I see mostly is that companies are indifferent to people who are leaving their employ, choosing to mostly ignore them in that period between when they quit and when they actually leave.

How Do You Help Your Employees Leave on a Good Note? does a nice job of detailing some specific things you and your HR staff can (and really should) be doing for departing employees, and the suggestions are generally pretty good.

However, these executives who talked to LinkedIn don’t spend any time at all on what is the most critical reason why you need to treat those who are leaving well: You need to do it because how you treat someone leaving today sends a strong and clear message to those who remain in your employ.

Working people watch closely how those around them are treated, and as they watch they say to themselves, “This is probably how they will treat me when I leave, too.”  Millennials and younger workers are especially focused on jobs that have meaning, and it’s easy to destroy the sense of meaning when people who have worked hard for you leave and seemingly aren’t appreciated much at all for what they did for you and your organization.

People remember the last impression

Rather than focus so much on exit interviews (something I believe are pretty much a waste of time), why not create a formal offboarding program that rivals your onboarding activities and makes everyone feel that people are strongly appreciated for all that they do for you even as they head out the door?

As The Wall Street Journal notes, it’s critical how people are treated as they depart your employ. The Journal put it like this:

The last impression is the one people remember.

A graceful exit can burnish an employee’s reputation and shore up valuable relationships. A bad one can do serious damage to both.”

Yes, a graceful exit is important for all involved — the employee, their soon-to-be-former co-workers, managers and executives, everyone else in the office — and speaks volumes about your organization. When departing employees end on a high note and all feel wistful but happy for the departed, it says, “This is a culture that honors those who work here — even as they depart and head out the door.”

For those who quit your service, that’s about as good as it gets.


Author: John Hollon

John Hollon is an award-winning journalist and nationally recognized expert on leadership, talent management, human resources, and smart workforce practices. For the last six years, he worked as Vice President for Editorial at ERE Media where he founded the highly popular HR and talent management website TLNT.com TLNT.com. Before that, he was Editor-in-Chief of Workforce Management magazine, the nation’s oldest HR and talent management publication. During his 30-year career, he has also held editing positions at the late Los Angeles Herald Examiner and California’s Orange County Register. He was the top editor for Gannett at two statewide papers—the Great Falls Tribune in Montana, and The Honolulu Advertiser in Hawaii. He also has deep experience in magazine and online publishing, having been a group editor and editorial director at Fancy Publications in Irvine, vice president for editorial at Pets.com in San Francisco, and Editor of the San Diego Business Journal. In addition to his work as an editor and media executive, John is also an adjunct professor in the College of Communications at California State University, Fullerton.

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