As a leader, you may have gone through this, are going through it now, or (inevitably) will sometime soon. What is it? One or more people separating from your team or organization.
Maybe your project phase is ending and some of the team is leaving. Or it's more complex: a founding partner has decided to leave after a long-standing dispute. Or worse, is being forced out.
There are as many reasons for people leaving teams as there are teams; it’s a normal feature of any workplace. And … it can be one of the most complex issues a team ever has to deal with. It's not just about signing agreements and getting the security pass turned in. It's about disruption to the workplace culture, changing relationships, personal agendas, shifting roles - did I mention disruption?
Based on our conflict advisory work with clients in the throes of workplace separation, we offer this short guide for those concerned about sustaining their workplace culture and performance during and after a separation. You'll find a set of questions to be considered, and a simple starting process to achieve results that will support everyone. This is not a legal guide, rather some important guidelines to support your most precious resource - your talent.
Breaking up is hard to do: supporting the people who are left behind
For a smooth separation process, team leadership must address not only the person leaving but those who remain behind. Being proactive about setting the stage to ensure a successful, cohesive, high-performing team after someone leaves is critical. Consider the following questions to help you gain a deeper awareness of exactly what is happening and how you can give stronger support for those who remain.
How will you know that you have been successful at this transition as a team?
Messaging about the separation:
What is the agreed-upon story/message? Who needs to agree on this message?
How transparent will/can you be about the cause of the separation? Why?
Does this departing person hold a special place in the team that demands special attention be paid to perceptions among others inside and outside the team?
How will the agreed-upon story/message be told, by whom, and when?
Does this same story/message work with outsiders to the team? Investors? Vendors? Clients?
Are there direct reports/colleagues/friends of the departing person who need special attention? Who are they and how should they be worked with?
Given the organizational/team culture, what are the actions that must be taken to keep the remaining team feeling and performing well?
What are the roles and responsibilities the departing team member filled? Will there be an organized and voluntary handover of these functions? If so, what are the steps to making the transition successful? If not, what the steps to making the transition successful?
Would an exit interview be valuable? If so, who should perform the interview?
Getting thoughtful, thorough, and transparent about the process
As you can see, these aren't likely questions that will be answered by you alone in a couple of hours. It's key to discuss these questions with the appropriate people, in an organized fashion, and within a transparent process, so any misunderstandings (or worse) will be avoided. Here is a simple process to move forward successfully, whether you're leading a small team or a large organization:
Have an open discussion about as many of the above items that make sense to talk about.
Have one person outline a DRAFT plan that answers as many of the questions above as needed.
Review the draft, edit, solidify, and set an action plan(s) with dates.
If the relationship between the person leaving and the balance of the team is contentious, consider having an outside-the-team facilitator to help with the process.
Let’s circle back to the first question: “How will you know that you have been successful at this transition as a team?” Your thorough and thoughtful response will drive a successful separation experience.
Workplace separation happens... and it’s easier to just let it blow over and “move on.” But these are sensitive, complex events that can make or break an organization. The hard part is facing the music for yourself and the sake of the team, but the outcomes are more than worth the effort.