July 12, 2013
When An Employee Breaks Up With You

“I’d rather be respected than liked”—a leadership lesson I’ve heard from many sources. But does it have to be one or the other?

An employer-employee relationship that includes both respect and good feeling is better than one that includes one or the other. And if it’s not mutual, it’s not real. I submit that the truest litmus test of the strength of this relationship is how it ends.

Hurt. Resentment. Regret. All three are emotions I’ve experienced upon hearing the news from a team member that he or she is giving notice. What sign of weakness is this to other team members and clients? What kind of interruption is this going to cause the business? Why is this person rejecting me, our company and this opportunity?

But it doesn’t have to be like that. Last week, a dear team member let me know that she would be moving on in her career. She started as an intern and developed in the company as a full-time team member for six years. Throughout that time, she grew immeasurably in confidence, aptitude and responsibility.

For me, this experience reinforced the truth that exits can be joyful rather than painful. While we will sorely miss her, she is moving on to a great and different opportunity to put to good use all she learned here—an opportunity to run marketing for a non-profit client for whom we did work several years ago. Their mission is land conservation, which dovetails beautifully with who she is and what she cares about. And all I felt when I heard the news was pride, warmth and excitement for this employee.

Businesses should aspire to good exits with team members on the sole basis that it is good for humanity. The fact that it is good business, however, is also quite convenient.

Here are three things to keep in mind if you want to have good, clean employee break-ups:

1. Consistent communication and feedback.

Defusing the natural tension between employer and employee carefully and equitably throughout the tenure cannot be emphasized enough. Neither employee nor employer should feel like they got the short end of the stick.

Both should feel they pushed and got pushed just enough. That leads not only to strong relationships during a team member’s tenure, but makes exits far more positive.

2. Push but prepare.

The key is managing team members to deliver the most while perpetually mitigating the risk of losing them, such that when the end comes—which hopefully is well down the road—there is no need to panic.

Exits are often made difficult due to employer response, which often can spring not from anything personal, but from the added stress of a search one didn’t see coming.

3. Nurture trust.

Employers should value a team member’s life outside the workplace, without getting involved to the point that it undermines rational decision-making. Trust and goodwill will motivate each party to soften the blow for the other when it’s time to part ways.

We spend so much time and invest so much of ourselves in our careers—and our relationships at work are just as sensitive as any personal relationship. It is affirming and comfortable for everyone if such relationships can be open, caring and mutually beneficial.

Whether or not both sides achieve these goals is often best revealed when it’s time for a team member to move on.

Daniel Erlbaum
As CEO of Finch Brands, Daniel Erlbaum focuses on bringing together a group of superlative professionals to provide outstanding service and value to the company’s growing base of clients. Daniel co-founded Finch Brands after serving as Vice President at David’s Bridal Inc., a NASDAQ-listed retailer that was ultimately sold to the May Company.