What to do when your star employees quit

March 9, 2011: 10:18 AM ET

The day your best employee comes in with the news that they're moving on is the day you start recruiting them again. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

By Hank Gilman, deputy managing editor

While you might have a bigger paycheck and you might have a special feeling inside now that you have a staff of your own, the gripes, hiring, and firing responsibilities are also all yours. Welcome to management. In You Can't Fire Everyone, Fortune deputy managing editor Hank Gilman lays out some of the most critical challenges managers face today, drawing from his decades of experience on the front lines.

The following excerpt addresses the unfortunate, inevitable day when your talented employees decide to leave. This excerpt also marks the official launch of You Can't Fire Everyone (sound familiar?), a series that will open our site to reader contributions on their triumphs and trials in the working world. Tune in next week for tales on firing and being fired.

I know this will come as a shocker -- well, to some of you -- but eventually new and/or better jobs will come along for your more talented people. Or eventually they'll just get tired of what they're doing (and of you) and will want to experience something else. Or sometimes a job offer will come along and your star won't know whether they want to leave or not. But if and when a star decides to leave, you just have to understand and hope that someday they'll return. And you know what? It does happen. And a lot of it depends on how you act when they leave.

Now, some bosses will hold grudges. Pretty much like a scorned husband or wife. There's one story of a publisher I'll leave unnamed, that will not hire you back if you leave. It's a breakup pure and simple. (My boss kind of feels that way. Jeez, you should see his face when someone leaves. But he always lets them return!) But I like to look at it a different way. The day your best employee comes in with the news that they're moving on is the day you start recruiting them again. A few things to keep in mind:

1. Don't bad-mouth the new employer.

This is pretty classless. I once interviewed the late Sam Walton for a story I was writing and he not once said a negative word about his competitors. Hell, you could tell him that Kmart was the worst retailer you have ever seen and how could they compete with the mighty Wal-Mart (WMT)? And by the way, they say Wal-Mart is run by a bunch of hicks. He wouldn't budge. In fact, he would even go on and on about all the good things Kmart was doing. (Hey, look at that Pennzoil display -- you can't do much better than that!) You knew he was fibbing a little bit. But the point was he was taking the high road. And it made him look good.

The same thing is true in any business. One of my employees, late in the courtship stage with a competitor, recently asked me what I thought of the people he might be working for. I knew their flaws (I actually thought they were evil trolls), but it wasn't worth getting into. For one thing, he might like the trolls. For another, it would make me look like a petty jerk if I started gossiping about people, some of whom I didn't know. (Not that I'm always above that.) Whenever I hear one of my bosses slander someone, I figure they probably do the same to me as well. So here's my standard line: "Look, you're lucky, you have two good options and you can't go wrong. Of course, I want you to stay. But that's your decision. I have a pony in the race." I actually believe that.

2. Come up with a counteroffer, but only if they really want one.

I tell this to people all the time. If it's partly about money, I'll get you some more. If it's about your title, we can do something about that. (It's only words.) But if you really want a new job -- or need a change -- take it. You'll be coming back to me anyway in six months if your idea of a good career move is a useless new title.

One of our more talented writers must have gone through this process three or four times before he eventually left. You know, walk in to me or one of his other bosses with a job offer in his hand. He'd come in and say he was being courted and we'd come up with more money. Then he'd come in again.

The final time I just said, "Look, it sounds like a great job and I know you need a change of scenery. You're bored. This is the only place you've ever worked. Go off, enjoy the new place, but think of us when you want to come back again. You still have a home here." So he took the new job. I later found out he was insulted that there was no counteroffer -- also that I wasn't, no kidding, devastated enough at the thought of his leaving -- even though he didn't want a counteroffer and was going to leave anyway. Sometimes you can't win. (Postscript: By the time you read this, the writer may have returned. The grass isn't always greener, but sometimes you just have to let them find that out on their own.)

3. Don't be a hypocrite.

I've had, let's see, about six or seven major jobs depending upon how you count them up. I'm not going to sit there and tell someone that moving on is a bad thing when it isn't, and I've jumped around a lot. I wouldn't be writing this book if I hadn't had all those jobs, met all those people, and managed in more than one place. And my employees know that, too. It makes it easier to lose someone because you understand and it's just something they have to do. This is especially true of young writers and editors who have been at the same place most of their careers. Trust me, they'll want to work for you again if you're honest and helpful. Unless, of course, you're the reason they're leaving.

But having a lot of different jobs, as a manager, does have some advantages. I can, and do, tell employees with wandering eyes that I've been there. "Go off and have a great time. Enjoy the job. I've had enough of them and you're not going to get much better than this." And I believe that. And, again, sometimes they just need a change. A kind of young reporter left Fortune recently to go to The Washington Post. I knew she wanted the change partly because she wanted to work in a newsroom atmosphere. No way could we provide that for her. Sometimes you just say good luck, "I know you'll do great," and let them explore what's out there.

4. Keep in touch.

Of course, you always tell them they can come back. But the hardest part is keeping up connections. I always make it a point to have lunch or dinner and remain friendly. Sometimes they don't come back. But keeping in touch works in other ways. You have a scout in a new place if you want to recruit one of their colleagues. You also have a damn good reference in case you decide you need to look for work! (Hey, don't think it doesn't help.) Finally, former employees are, of course, asked by potential new hires what it is like working for you. And they'll be honest.

Excerpted from You Can't Fire Everyone by Hank Gilman by arrangement with Portfolio Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2011 by Hank Gilman.

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