Resignation blues and lessons learned

If you’ve been a manager for only a short while, let me forewarn you that one day, possibly in your immediate future, an employee will walk into your office sniffling “my-grandmother-just-died” tears, and quietly close the door. At the same time that you’re formulating a compassionate response and a promise to let them take paid funeral leave, they mumble something about an “opportunity too good to pass up” and “two weeks’ notice.”

Huh? Surprise! In the next couple of weeks you’ll need to reassign work and then possibly recruit, interview, and hire a temp or a permanent replacement. And during that now defined timespan, you also need to develop a transition plan with your current employee, right? Not necessarily. There are many divergent paths at this intersection of intent and reality when an employee quits, and after 30-plus years of dealing with situations like this, I’d like to offer up hard lessons learned.

My least favorite resignation experience occurred during the first week of a gentleman’s “notice period.” That’s the time he was being paid to finish work he already was behind schedule with, due to his many recent work absences to do job interviews (or, as I had been told, to “meet the emergency plumber at my house” and “take the car in for an unavoidable repair”).  Once again, we had a final “miscommunication”; he used that crunch time not to write copy, as he’d promised, but rather to send out letters on IB stationery, using IB envelopes run through the IB postage machine, to 200-plus IB advertisers telling of his decision to take a different position and letting them know of “wonderful potential advertising opportunities” with that different publication. 

When some of the recipients of his notices called me to ask if I’d approved such a ridiculous mailing, I had to make myself calmly leave the building for an hour’s cooling-off period to prevent great bodily harm befalling one or possibly both of us. Needless to say, he was released from his position later that very afternoon and I was actually grateful to the other publication for hiring Mr. N. Professional. 

Another sad and completely unnecessary experience happened when a young woman I personally liked very much sang her swan song about that better position with tears in her eyes, choking me up as well. Then she added that she didn’t voluntarily apply for the job, but rather had been heavily recruited and in fact had turned down the first offer. “Their last overture was just too good of an offer to pass up,” she said, dabbing at her tears with a fresh Kleenex, and I assured her I well understood.

The next morning, however, her new boss called me with a slightly different version of the hiring process. “Listen,” she said, “I called to personally assure you that when your employee applied for our opening, she assured me that she was going to leave IB whether we hired her or not, and said she had her replacement already trained, so I figured if she didn’t take a job with me, she’d take one with someone else. But I almost didn’t hire her because we’re friends, Jody, and I didn’t want to leave you shorthanded. We do have to honor a job applicant’s confidentiality while interviewing, but now that she’s told you she’s leaving, I wanted you to know that if you need her for a month instead of a couple weeks, to give you more time to replace her, I’d be happy to try to work with you on that.”

“That won’t be necessary,” I replied. “In fact, if you need her immediately, I’m sure I could actually accommodate you now.”

The funny thing is, nobody was backed into a corner and asked to explain anything at all to me, which meant one of the two ladies felt compelled to serve up a lie without any good reason. And why? I don’t deal in slavery or bondage and I really only want the best possible future for anyone who has worked at IB. Frankly, I’ve left some of the best jobs in America – whether voluntarily or recruited, both ways – for the next great job myself, so I especially understand leaving for a better opportunity. However, if either woman thought that a departing IB employee would decide who would assume their position after they left, well, that’s just nuts.

The last time someone resigned, I congratulated her on the new opportunity, thanked her for her time and work with IB, notified our HR department, and then immediately collected keys and cell phone and walked her out of the building, explaining that while she would be paid another two weeks’ wages, I have no legal obligation to actually maintain employment once notice is given. Sometimes it’s worth the extra salary and the PTO credit payout for the immediate hasta la vista that prevents the employee from chatting excitedly about their new job, complaining about their old one, or otherwise entertaining the workplace in the coming weeks with a drawn-out goodbye. 

In the above separation, the employee had little interaction with clients, and I knew pretty well what she was working on and what needed yet to be accomplished, and who I would reassign the work to in the short term. Other resignations are admittedly more complicated and require debriefing, contractual goodbyes, and lots of scheduled follow-up meetings. Frankly, I hate those. (Continued)


Any parting is hard, but one door shuts – or slams, sometimes – and another opens. I don’t have a status quo response to a resignation anymore, knowing that every situation is unique. I try to come to the most equitable parting, when I have legal leeway to negotiate without setting up a precedent that I wouldn’t again honor, and then we conclude our business like the ladies and gentlemen we are, and life goes on. They have, or find, other employment and I find another employee or I go a different route into the future.

And that door that shuts? My advice to new managers is to be prepared to get your fingers slammed in the doorjamb a couple times without taking it to heart. They aren’t rejecting you; they simply are called now to something and someplace else. During the necessary psychological divorce, which unknown to you happened in the days or weeks before the employee gave notice, they were pitched between the euphoria of a new challenge and the dread of informing you that they were leaving. Now it’s done, and though the employee is calling it quits, they likely are afraid of what will happen to them, too, if they don’t like the new job.

They are probably also leaving behind good memories and friends and comfort to make this change that they need to make to walk their true path and grow, and they are trying to smooth their own road, even if they do it with all the wrong bricks. But that’s why you usually are paid the bigger bucks and have the bigger responsibility … because you’ve learned also to leave the building for an hour or so to calm down, and you’ve learned to call a temp agency and to stay late yourself if necessary. Because no matter what happens, you’re determined to stay open for business and to minimize the disruption for the other employees.

Good luck with that passage, my friends, and I wish you grace and peace with the outcome, regardless of the circumstance or personalities involved.

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