Friday, November 8, 2013

Employee Separation: Is a Two Week Notice Enough?

When an employee decides to leave a company, especially one who is practically indispensable, a two week notice seems barely enough time to adjust to the news, never mind finish up projects, delegate work, advise clients, or plan a "Bon Voyage" party in their honor.  So who decides what a fair and equitable time frame is between giving notice and the last day?

The answer is not simple.  There are more than just two and your consideration.  There is also a third outside influence...that (expletive) exciting new employer.  It's already a bitter pill to swallow, losing someone you value who is well liked and has made your professional life a lot easier, and more enjoyable.  But the reality is people leave, and there is little you can do to stop them.  Nor should you try to.

Grousing over an employee's decision to seek greener (or, in the harried commuter's case, closer) pastures will only make their haste to depart greater.  If you review their behavior in the weeks/months leading up to resignation, you may recognize signs of disconnection or "checking out" on their part.  This is a leading indication they stopped investing in the company's goals and long term commitments, focusing their energies instead on the great leap they were preparing to take in the coming weeks.  Don't feel badly that you didn't see it coming.  Most managers don't.

But taking your frustrations out by making their transition miserable does not serve anyone.  In fact, it can send a message to the rest of your staff that you don't know how to lose someone graciously, and may put someone else through the same misery when it comes their time to leave.  Obviously, no one wants to see their boss behave like a jilted lover over one employee's departure.  Who wants to work for a poor sport?  This can make others feel less valuable to you, and perhaps have colleagues questioning your emotional intelligence. 

However, you do have a right to ask for good sportsmanship from your employee relative to giving notice, and they should be willing to comply with reasonable requests.  While a one week notice may be standard operating procedure in some sales organizations, most companies have a right to ask for a minimum of two weeks notice (and longer with a signed employee contract*).  The determination of how much time your employee is required to give will depend primarily upon how much responsibility they have, and at what level they serve in your company.  Technical employees with unique skill sets that are a challenge to replace should be required to give three weeks, minimum.  C-Suite executives will often give four weeks or more.  Staff-level employees are generally safe at two weeks as you can often delegate their work to others on the team.  This may create a temporary strain, but it can also give someone else an opportunity to demonstrate their own potential for promotion.

At the time of notice, you can expect the separating employee to make every effort to avoid burning a bridge.  They won't want to overburden you or anyone else on the team by shortening their notice.  But there is only so much they can do before the inevitable last day.

So, what can you ask for and what is considered off the table?  First of all, consult their contract*, if they have one.  Often the notice period is written in black and white, and the employee would have signed off on it.  It is their responsibility to fulfill the terms or negotiate a compromise with you.

Second, if the employee has committed to start the new job in two weeks time, and you have legitimate concerns about the transition (ie., an engineering project where any disruption in progress could result in losing a client, or an upcoming event where his/her technical expertise is central to winning new business, etc.), you can negotiate for another week and/or add a paid part-time nights/weekends commitment for an extended period.  This arrangement may be difficult for the employee in the short term, but their long term goal should be to ensure a strong relationship with you, and secure great references for their future.

Third, if the employee offers to stay on for three weeks or longer, this may give you an opportunity to show them that you not only support their decision to move on, but perhaps gives you a chance to change their mind.  Take them out to lunch and get to the bottom of their RFL (reason for leaving).  If it's something completely out of your hands (spouse relocating to another city for work, a total change in  career direction, health or wellness challenges), there is little you can or should do to reverse the tide.  If it is something within your power to adjust (compensation, hours, travel requirements, commute, chemistry with a co-worker) and is not a temporary band-aid**, get a commitment from your employee to stay if you can make them happy.  However, you will have to settle for a *verbal commitment.*     

But what about that third outside influence?  Do they have a voice in this process?  Well, yes and no.  It depends primarily upon the expectations they were given by their new hire, your now departing employee.  And they can be a very powerful influence.  Any attempt to throw the new employer under the bus will be transparent, and can backfire on you if your goal is to hang onto this person.  Try to focus instead on the reasons they should stay, and how you'll make it worth their reinvestment.

Given the complexity of the emotions involved in leaving a company, it does not pay to "guilt" your employee into staying on, or staying longer than their agreed upon notice period.  Eventually their true RFL will catch back up with them and the temporary band-aid (**more money, flexible hours, company car, new office**) will feel more like handcuffs than a happy compromise.  If you are unable to address the real reason they were unhappy in the first place, they will leave anyway.  Not to mention the trust that has been violated by this person's initial attempt to leave.  Every sneeze, dental appointment, or morning they show up late wearing an extra nice shirt will make you leery.  And, of course, they will pick up on it.  Best to let them go and focus on hunting for their replacement.

An employee's leaving does not always put you or your company in jeopardy.  It can sometimes be an unwelcome change to your environment at first, but can just as easily lead to a smarter hire and a more engaged employee who breathes fresh energy into your team.  A mixed blessing at times, a change in the ranks may be the best thing for everyone...especially for you.

(*If you employ someone in an "employee-at-will" state, employment contracts/agreements tying an employee to your company for a specific period will be considered null and void if you attempt to enforce it.*)   

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