Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Leaving a Gig Professionally, Rather than Petulantly, Part 3: Someone's leaving, All the Stuff The Boss Probably Ought to Do

Whether an employee has elected to leave you for another opportunity, you are forced to lay them off for various reasons, or you are firing someone for cause, employees leave you and your team from time to time.

First, go to Human Resources. I'm a great source for a ton of managerial concepts and theories, but they are the experts at your place of business about legal requirements. Get things straight, as they say, from the horse's mouth about what must be done. The items listed here are just available to help you remember things and keep track of them.

1) How are they going?

a) Under their own power. If they've accepted another job opportunity, you have two options. One, proceed as you would with any employee leaving your team or two, attempt to persuade them to stay.

Rarely are you going to get them to stay by force of your personality alone; even if they agree to you in your office, they may be just afraid of you and still on their way out. No, if you're going to try to persuade someone who has gone through the resume submittal process and at least two interviews and finally accepted a job offer elsewhere, you need to bring a little more to the table than more of the same that caused them to submit that first resume. For that you'll need to talk to your boss and to human resources; can you get them extra vacation days? A bump in salary? A reduction in duties? More work from home? What is on the table for you to offer AND does your boss and Human Resources agree its worth the time and money to offer it?

If your boss and HR aren't feeling it, no harm, no foul, wish them luck and work with them as they leave. If, however, you do get support, then schedule a meeting with that individual and ask them about their experiences in the current job. Is there something causing them to leave? Is there something in the new job drawing them away? Open ended questions like "What would it take to keep you here" are very pressuring and hard to answer. You need specific questions that give you specific answers, so you can lead into what you've been allotted to give them in order to help them make the choice to stay. Note, I said "make the choice to stay." This is not about bullying them, or making them feel guilty, its about helping them weigh what is best for them professionally, because that's the decision that caused them to choose to try to leave your organization. Making it about you, or the organization isolates them from the conversation, makes them feel unimportant, and pretty much kills your chances of a successful renegotiation.

Keep in mind, even if you do it all right, there are reasons that many employees will not share with you, about why they are going. You may never know what the true problem is in order to help fix it. Or, in some cases, you might, but it might be beyond your power to fix. It's not a failing on your part as a manager, these things sometimes happen. Just do the best you can, be on their side, and let them know your door is always open and you're a phone call away in case they need anything. You might not get them back to the job where you're working now, but that kind of friendly support might make it easier when you're pulling together a dream team of individuals at another job, or, as this job under different circumstances.

If they are still leaving despite your best efforts, you need to schedule when their permissions and access will be revoked from the system.

Let's talk about permissions for a moment. When you first start working at a company, you're given access to email, maybe a share drive, the network so you can log into your computer...and then a variety of other potential accesses are given over time so you can check in code, or modify a SharePoint portal, etc. All of these are ways for users to access company resources and make modifications and/or send information for and from the company.

When someone is leaving the company, you will need to cancel those permissions in an appropriate manner to reduce their liability regarding company security and to protect company security. Angry former employees who still have master passwords can do a lot of damage to a company, and former employees who aren't angry but don't have particularly clever passwords can be liable for data lost by thieves who might guess those passwords.

Best to protect everyone and schedule with your Information Services/Operations department when their privileges will be removed, and all passwords they knew that must be in use should be changed (sometimes you can't say, take down a vital database, but you can change the password). It's best, for employees leaving under their own power, to know when their passwords won't work anymore/permissions are revoked, so they can complete their work and any other obligations to your company before they go.

Sometimes these permissions have physical manifestations--such as a hardware pass key to make sure that users are allowed on an internal system or a badge that allows them to enter the building. You can remotely deactivate both devices, but its also a good idea to get the company hardware back from them so that it can be used by others and so that there are fewer risks that someone who wants to break into your network or building doesn't have the first building block to do so. Physical manifestations also include computers, monitors, peripherals, etc. Letting employees walk away with company resources costs the company money (and might personally cost you if the company decides that you were not diligent in retrieving those resources).

So, in the talk with the employee about their leaving, set up an appointment to discuss it, or discuss it then, but schedule a time to end permissions, change passwords and hand in all the company resources.

b) Not under their own power. You have lost a headcount. Your division is being dismantled and there aren't spots for everyone on the team in other places. One of your employees was unable to make his obligations under an improvement plan and all other options have been tried or you are in one of those rare situations where an employee must be terminated immediately with indisputable proof of a situation so bad they cannot continue to work here.

None of those is fun, by the way. As we'll explore in a future blog post about handling "Great Events" such as an explosive firing or a series of layoffs, there's a lot to do for the survivors of the event; calming, reassuring, securing their position (even if its not entirely secure). This is to discuss what to do for the person who is not surviving this.

As noted in a movie recently, "Would you rather be shot in the head, once, clean, or shot in the chest multiple times and bleed to death?" Appropriately, the person being asked said "Are those my only choices?" The answer, when removing someone from your employ, is yes. You can try to break it to them gently and slowly, which I believe is really more like shooting them in the torso and watching them bleed to death, or shoot them in the head with a gentle, firm, and quick termination. Of course, no matter how upset you get with someone, you really shouldn't shoot them, literally, at all, no matter how badly you want to.

It's important to know what you're going to say before you talk to them privately--as noted above, talking to HR about what you want to say can help you stay within the realm of legal things that are unlikely to leave you open to a lawsuit.

Next, you need to know when they are leaving--as soon as they leave your office are they going to be escorted out? Will they be allowed to pack up their things and clean out their personal items from their computer? Will it be another week before their project is over and they're being asked to stick it out until then?

Human Resources can help you make the decision about when they are leaving. A general rule of thumb is, if they are likely to make a scene and/or react very negatively, walk them straight out the door and handle getting their things to them later. I don't mean silently sobbing, I mean screaming, yelling and potentially damaging internal systems. Or getting very quiet and making you worried they might do something violent (or any other signs of potential violence). Even if you walk into the meeting with them thinking they can clean their desk and their computers before they go, and they give you some kind of sign that they might be dangerous or do harm to the company, skip your original plan and have them walked out. It's better to be safe than sorry, and, in addition to your obligation to the person you're terminating, you have an obligation to the people that remain that they will be safe and to the company that their data integrity will remain safe.

A brief note about safety and the workplace fits nicely here: if any employee on his or her way out for whatever reasons makes threats against you, other employees of the company, or the company in general, write down what they said and when they said it and who was present at the meeting. Caution them against threats and threatening behavior, as many people who are angry leap directly to the empty threat model to make themselves feel better. If anything happened after those threats, that person would have made him/herself a suspect, and they need to not dig that kind of a hole for themselves. Additionally, it can hurt their future prospects, from references here (at the company they are leaving) to a potential police arrest or report. This is not to be mentioned to them as a threat, but from the perspective of someone watching out for them; for example "I don't want you to get in trouble if something random you had nothing to do with happens after you've said what you're thinking in anger."

If you ever feel unsafe in a termination meeting, excuse yourself and get additional help. Company security, HR, whatever; they don't pay you to be a bouncer for the company. Try not to get other members of the team of the person being terminated involved; one, it might make them targets of his/her anger but two, its hard enough being a survivor when someone is let go, its doubly hard if they have to witness someone they worked with every day and may have called a friend break down in a nasty and terrible way. Obviously, though, if choosing between safety and the mentality of the surviving team members, I'd go with safety. Just remember to think of everyone's safety and not just your own.

We'll talk more about what to do with a person who is leaving in just a sec, but to wrap up the safety thoughts: if someone has made threats, even if they were empty, "blowing off steam" comments, document everything and pass that on to HR as fast as you can. In the unlikely event that person does anything on their way out, or after they're gone, its safely in HR's court to handle, and no longer your responsibility and liability. You can even comment on the comments in your notes to HR about the person just seeming temporarily upset, and that they didn't seem to mean it, but report it; failing to do so and having that tiny percentage chance of something going wrong isn't worth it. No one should be hurt or scared in their work environment and as a manager, you have to take actions you may not want to take to protect them and the company.

So, if you are walking an employee about to be terminated straight out of the office, have their permissions canceled/passwords changed before you walk them into your office to be told. This may mean they are unexpectedly locked out of some systems and there are some awkward moments. But it's better to be safe than sorry (as noted above). If you are letting them collect their things and clear personal information from their computers, talk to IS and lock down their access to internal systems while allowing them access to email and their computer. It's up to you if you feel you can trust them not to take company property (intellectual property) and send it to themselves (or others), or if you want to hang around while they do it; I have rarely had a time where it wasn't better to hang out, help them pack, and hover while they clear things off. It creeps them out, and usually pisses them off, but it keeps you both covered against liability in case of issues with proprietary company materials getting into the wild.

If you have an employ working for a length of time before they leave, then you'll need to have the same talk with them that you did with those going out under their own power so they know when their permissions will end so that they can get what remains of their job done. I once experienced my boss's colleague turning off all my permissions when my upcoming layoff was announced a full week before I was supposed to go, rendering me unable to work for about three hours. I'm not opposed to them paying me to surf the net while they straighten such things out, but as a manager you probably should be opposed to people surfing the net instead of being able to get their jobs done. Details, I know.

2) What about the paperwork? No matter how they end up leaving your employ, there will be paperwork for employees. For those leaving under their own power, you'll need to do an exit interview and fill out appropriate paperwork, and get them copies of any papers they need from their files (such as visa forms or proof of insurance, etc.). You'll also need to clarify their address for their final check and how they'll choose to get it--auto deposit, picking it up, etc. For this, like any other professional paperwork at the office, you'll need to consult with HR to make sure everything is done according to the law and company policy.

For those not leaving under their own power, the same needs are present, but, depending on how they are leaving, the time during which to provide those materials might be somewhat compressed. Additionally, they need to know about unemployment options (if you are at liberty to discuss it with them--if your company knows it will contest an unemployment claim, you probably don't want to provide them materials on unemployment) and COBRA insurance, which covers folks who have lost their coverage when leaving a place of employment.

3) Did you dot your i's and cross your t's? After the paperwork is done and the person is out of the office, you need to meet with HR again just to make sure you got all the proper papers filled out and to discuss any potential issues; if the person said words like "kill you" or "sue you" (or any other threats as noted above) you'll need to pass that information on to them and your documentation of it, so they can get the security and/or lawyers warmed up, and to make final additions of the signed documents to their files on those employees. You always want to follow this last step, handing over responsibility for the terminated employee to HR, so that you do not have to do any additional work in this area; it reduces your liability and your workload to do this. Once you've met with them and talked it out and handed over papers, send a quick email summarizing that you've officially handed things over, and then quietly avoid dealing with any additional items around terminated employees by handing them to HR.

No one ever said management was glamorous. These are simple things, but they are things you need to know, to think about, to consider, and to protect yourself with.

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