How to cope when someone suddenly quits

Good managers should never be “truly surprised” when an employee announces she is leaving.

Good managers should never be “truly surprised” when an employee announces she is leaving.


It’s Friday afternoon and one of your employees asks for a private meeting. Before you even close the door, she tells you she’s found another job and is leaving the company.

Once you get over the shock, how should you respond? How do you cover her responsibilities? And how do you make sure that the rest of your team isn’t overburdened when she leaves?

Unexpected resignations present big challenges for leaders, especially those unaccustomed to dealing with them. “It’s probably a frustration you haven’t had for a while – and if you’re a relatively new manager, you might not have ever experienced this before,” says Priscilla Claman, the president of Career Strategies, a Boston-based consulting firm.

Abrupt employee departures are especially hard on the psyche. If you’ve grown to really rely on that person, “you may feel deserted and alone,” says Anat Lechner, a clinical associate professor of management and organisations at NYU Stern.

“You’re left psychologically and practically without a point person.”

Here are some tips to help you manage the separation and make the transition as smooth as possible.

Know the protocol

It’s important to first understand your company’s HR procedures for handling these situations.

Don’t emote

Once the news is delivered, Ms Claman advises “muting your inner response of: What? Why? You didn’t tell me!” Instead, she says, “breathe” and “even if you’re upset” do your best to engage in a “warm and friendly conversation about (the person’s) future plans.”

Ask for a rationale

It’s still important, however, to try to “understand the why” behind the employee’s decision, says Prof Lechner. Occasionally, you can discover new information that “will help you construct a solution.”

You may, for instance, learn that she’s resigning for personal reasons: Her spouse is being transferred to a new city or she needs more time to care for an aging parent. In these circumstances, you could offer alternatives. Perhaps she can work remotely or take an unpaid leave of absence.

Consider a counter offer – or not.

Whether or not to make a counter offer comes down to “how critical this person is to you and how much of a disruption their absence will cause,” says Lechner.

Collaborate and communicate

Ms Claman suggests collaborating with your exiting employee on how to best present the departure.

Transfer knowledge.

Acknowledge that your team will have a “workload problem” for a time and that people are likely to “feel overburdened,” but also use the departure as an opportunity to “talk to employees about their careers and opportunities for growth,” says Ms Claman.

Make a hiring plan

Ms Claman recommends coordinating with HR to formally list a job opening as soon as possible. “This helps people on your team understand that this is temporary,” she says.

Have a party

On the employee’s last day, it’s important to gather your team to “thank the person who’s leaving and wish them well,” says Ms Claman. It doesn’t have to be a big party, but the act of celebration is key. After all, “it’s not only about the person who is leaving. It’s also about the people who are staying” , she says.

Then take time to reflect

Good managers should never be “truly surprised” when an employee announces she is leaving, says Ms Claman. “As manager, you need to be aware of people’s interests and needs. You should know what they want to do. And you should be able to tell when someone is tired of her job, has aged out of it, is not engaged, or has life changes afoot – like a move or a spouse transfer – that make a resignation likely,” she says.


Previously published in The Irish Times.


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