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When an employee quits, what should you say?

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When I told a former boss I was quitting my job, I remember being shocked by his reaction. He simply said, “Oh, okay. Where are you going?”

I don’t know what I was expecting, to be honest. I was young and had only ever left one job before, and when I did a big deal was made about the fact that I was moving on. My previous boss even gave me a hug and said how sad he was to see me go.

This particular boss’s reaction surprised me, because he wasn’t surprised.

I remember feeling hurt by it at the time, but now that I’m older (and only mildly wiser) I believe his reaction was probably just an honest one. Either he really didn’t care that I was leaving, or he had no idea that what I wanted and needed in a job was not being provided.

You see, when employees quit – particularly the best ones (not that I was ‘the best’, but I definitely wasn’t the worst) – bosses almost always act surprised. Usually, they’re surprised because they believe they are providing a great place for career advancement and a wholesome work environment that other people would want.

This surprise is a common reaction, simply because many bosses struggle to see or accept the truth: Your company isn’t actually offering what that employee wants or needs.

This was true of this particular employer at that time. In line with this LinkedIn survey, I wasn’t happy with my compensation and benefits, I had very little work-life balance and I couldn’t see anywhere I could advance to at a pace I was comfortable with. I also wasn’t happy with the leadership… but I didn’t tell him that.

And therein lies the problem. I had at least four reasons for leaving that particular job, but I think he was only aware of one of them – money – because we were in the midst of a salary freeze. I am not convinced he was wholly aware of the effect my other reasons for leaving were having on me, and multiple other staff members (many of whom also left soon after).

Essentially, staff who leave a job voluntarily have formed a very different opinion of the company than what the employer believes. Maybe the boss is simply toeing the company line, or maybe he or she really doesn’t care or understand.

This actually reminds me of this interview Inc did a while back with Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg, who said he simply answers with an “OK” when someone tells him they’re leaving. His reason?

“That’s the end of the conversation. Then I sit there. If they want to stagger on for a couple of minutes and tell me why, that’s fine. But I think ‘OK’ is an appropriate answer. To say, ‘I understand’ – that would be lying. I don’t understand why anybody would want to leave. Say “Good luck”? Obviously, I would never do that. Tell them to go screw themselves? That doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s over and done with. As for asking why, I don’t much care.”

I’m not sure I entirely agree with Bloomberg’s gung-ho approach, but the point is that it takes a bold leader to delve a little bit deeper into their own practices and find out what part of their own beliefs aren’t ringing true.

It’s easier for bosses to shrug their shoulders when someone leaves and think, “Well, we’ll find someone else to take their place”, but then you’re just pretending there’s not a problem.

And when you do that, that person who was filled with valuable information about what you can do better, just walked out the door.

Image: Shutterstock 

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Rebecca Lewis
Human Resources Magazine Singapore

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