You Said It: Employee Exits Matter — The Importance of a Respectful Goodbye

As part of our “You Said It” Op-Ed series, we invite contributors to submit their opinion pieces. Have a submission? Contact us.

Employers are losing the game of employee exits, as shown in this recent analysis of Amazon’s layoff strategy. “Employees, feeling like expendable pawns in a grand corporate chess game, face an enormous emotional strain having to choose between their job and their home. This can lead to a significant drop in morale, causing a domino effect throughout the organization.”

News of current inflation rates and the COVID-19 pandemic’s lasting impact on our economy and workforce is inescapable. As companies across the globe muddle through survival and sustainability, mass layoffs and terminations are happening across industries, many hitting close to home. Guaranteed Rate, Etta Collective, and CVS have announced layoffs in Chicago this month. With all of the organizational changes abroad and locally, one thing is clear: We must get better at saying goodbye to employees. Centering people’s humanity and their dignity should always be prioritized as they leave an organization.

Over the past decade, companies have realized the value of employee onboarding experiences and processes and invested millions of dollars in them. There is no shortage of data on how the onboarding experience, the process of introducing and integrating new employees into an organization, influences everything from retention to morale and productivity. What we don’t talk about as often is offboarding, the process when an employee leaves an organization, whether voluntary or involuntary. 

I have had some of the most insightful and fruitful conversations with team members as they prepared to exit the organization. It doesn’t always feel good, but it’s extremely helpful for me as an HR leader and for the organization. If more leaders and organizations saw it this way, we would have better offboarding experiences. Employee departures, especially involuntary ones, are never easy and it won’t be perfect all the time, but they will get better each time if it is a stated priority for the organization and for all leaders. 

The employer/employee relationship should be honored at every stage just like any of our other relationships. Employers many times miss this opportunity to show real appreciation for the value the departing employees provided the organization over time in the quest to avoid uncomfortable conversations/situations, escape accountability, address a performance or conduct issue, save money or make a role or organizational change. While the first three are preventable through proactive measures like coaching and direct feedback, the last two are understandable, most times.  In any case, we can’t focus on the what more than the how. 

During Twitter’s recent layoffs in Africa, the company “literally ghosted” team members and didn’t honor the terms of their severance. Twitter opened negotiations with the African team only after CNN reported in November that they had been offered separation terms that differed from those offered to departing staff in Europe and North America. Employee issues with EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) at Twitter have emerged over years. Reminding us that whatever issues that exist within an organization are exacerbated during employee exits. 

There are steps that organizations can take to ensure a more people-centric and peaceful organizational exit. Ongoing, honest and transparent communication is of utmost importance throughout the employee experience. People need to know where they stand in an organization and they need to know the state of the organization. Employment relationships can end amazingly well, even when involuntary, if people feel that organizations cared enough about them to tell them the truth in love, even when it’s unpleasant. Organizations need to build their truth-telling muscles at all times. 

Ensuring there is clarity about why a separation is occurring is also important. Whether it’s a termination for cause or a layoff, leaders need to be clear about why they are taking this action. Deep assessment is required with close attention to employee tenure, race/ethnicity/gender, job roles/levels, institutional knowledge,etc. The clarity of the action will inform the intention and plan for next steps. 

Communication plans should be concise and thoughtful, taking into account the specific team members. What works with one department or team member might not work with another. Having a standard plan is understandable, but remaining flexible in terms of scheduling, communication method, and who will communicate the message is critical. Employees should have clarity around terms and next steps during a termination or layoff.  They should not be left guessing during this already stressful time.

Organizations can learn to embrace grief and mourning beyond a form email or an announcement in a staff meeting. When team members leave an organization, this is a loss that deserves a humane response. People need to see their leaders step up with vulnerability and compassion. Providing mental health support for staff members (for those departing and remaining) and also providing facilitated spaces to process the loss and changes for remaining staff can be healing for all involved and can help people move forward with trust and hope.

Thoughtful, humane organizational exits provide healing for individuals, organizations and for our workforce ecosystem. Employers must realize that when it comes to employee relationships, it matters how you start AND how you finish.

Jarie Bradley, SPHR-SHRM-SCP is a people+ work advocate with an emphasis on racial equity and healing. She is the CEO and founder of Sound & Sable, The People Consultancy in Dallas, Texas, lover of hip-hop and lavender lattes. Jarie is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

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