It’s the one thing that every employer dreads. Unfortunately, in our current reality, this thing has become almost commonplace.

We’re talking about resignations.

According to recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor, 4.5 million people quit their jobs in November 2021, up from 4.2 million in October.

If that number continues to climb—and there’s no reason to assume it won’t—then odds are you’re going to experience resignations (if you haven’t already).

Resignations can be scary, especially if you’re losing a top performer. Plus, there’s always the concern that the resignation will become, for lack of a better word, contagious.

So if your top employee leaves, here are six steps to keep your organization afloat, set your team at ease, and continue moving toward success.


1. Take a moment to breathe.


A two-week notice can be overwhelming at the best of times. When you’re not expecting it, or if the person leaving is a star performer, it can seem like the world is coming to an end.

So instead of making decisions while in fight-or-flight mode, take a deep breath.

Ideally, your employee will follow best practices and turn in their notice on a Friday. This will give both you and them the weekend to process the news. Then, on Monday, everyone can come to the table with a clear head.


2. Fulfill all your legal obligations.


There are some basic, legal obligations that you have to do when an employee leaves. These can include:

  • Paying all accrued wages
  • Disbursing any accrued benefits that must be paid upon termination (or issuing a notice of non-entitlement to these benefits)
  • If applicable, accounting for and establishing a schedule for commission or bonus payments
  • Provide the employee with the required legal notices (COBRA benefit continuation, unemployment and workers’ compensation notices, etc.)
  • Reviewing nondisclosure and noncompete agreements to maintain compliance (on both sides)

Not only does fulfilling these obligations protect you from liability, it also shows that you’re going to maintain a professional approach to the exit.


3. Fill the most critical gaps first.


When someone works for your company, they ideally fulfill 40 hours worth of work (or more) per week. This is a major contribution, and it’s going to be hard to fill those gaps in the short term.

That’s why you shouldn’t try and fill them all at once. Instead, put together a list of the employee’s weekly tasks, and figure out what must get done, and what you can drop until you hire a replacement. Be very picky about which tasks you deem essential, because your current employees are going to have to take on those tasks on top of their regular duties.


4. See if there’s a deeper issue within the organization.


In many cases, a resignation happens because of an issue with the employee—they want to pivot their career, work in a different kind of environment, etc. It doesn’t mean there’s a problem with your organization, it just means that the fit is no longer there. When this happens, it’s highly unlikely that the resignation will become contagious.

But there are some cases in which a resignation happens because of a problem with your organization. In those cases, the resignation will almost certainly be the first of many.

So when your top employee unexpectedly quits, it’s important to get to the root of their reasons why. Often employees are hesitant to burn bridges and so may not be forthcoming, but that’s why it’s important to ask probing questions during the exit interview, and even read between the lines a little bit.

Some of these questions may include:

  • What are your reasons for leaving the company? What service did you feel we were unable to offer you?
  • What did you like about the company? What did you not like?
  • What are the top 3 things you think we should do differently here?
  • Did you have a good relationship with your supervisor and team?
  • Did we meet your expectations in terms of employee experience?


5. Be transparent with your team.


It’s important to maintain trust with the rest of your team in the best of times. But when someone resigns, it automatically sets everyone on edge.

So it’s important to be especially vigilant about being open and transparent, and reassure them that you still have their best interests at heart.

Start by letting everyone know that the person has turned in their notice. Better they hear it from you than from the grapevine. If appropriate, share some of the reasoning. If the employee is moving onto “bigger and better things,” share and celebrate it.

Transparency and honesty will help reassure the team that you support them as individuals, not just for their work product.


6. If possible, part on good terms.


Barring some Festivus-style airing of grievances where the employee clearly wants to burn their bridges on the way out, it’s important to maintain a positive relationship with an outgoing employee.

You never know: they could become your next customer, refer new business your way, or they may come back to work for you in the future.


Final Thoughts


If your top employee quits, there’s a lot you’re going to have to do to handle it. However, the best thing you can do is plan ahead:

  • Don’t allow anyone to become indispensable. When an “indispensable” employee leaves, there’s no one left to fill the gap. Make sure that no one person siloes themselves off and hoards their knowledge and expertise.
  • Document institutional knowledge. Top performing employees naturally accrue a good deal of institutional knowledge. You need to ensure that knowledge is properly documented so you don’t have to spend too much time bringing their replacement up to speed.
  • Focus on meeting your team’s needs. By building a strong culture, you don’t just build a better and more enjoyable place to work, improve your chances of succeeding as a business and reduce employee churn; you make it easier on everyone when that churn happens.

Resignations are just a part of the reality of the world right now. Instead of burying your head in the sand and hoping that you never experience one, take steps to prepare and handle them with grace.

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