How employee offboarding needs effective management

As much as we would like to think otherwise, the places we work at aren’t likely to be the end destination for our professional careers or even our lives as a whole. With the advent of newer and more agile work opportunities present in today’s work landscape, it’s not unheard of for employees to seek other job placements elsewhere. 

This isn’t to say that workers don’t enjoy where they are working, but the reason for leaving can be a myriad of things combined together. At times, workers feel like they need more room to grow in a certain direction that their current workplace doesn’t have, or that they need to find specific aspects of a job (location, salary, etc) that better suit their lifestyle. 

Whichever the case may be, employee turnover is a very real and very frequent phenomenon present today. In fact, studies show that almost a third of young workers have quit their first job just within the first year of working there. Such sudden departures can affect your team and how it operates, curbing your productivity and affecting projects currently in the pipeline. 

To better mitigate the risk of disruption and inefficiencies caused by a departing employee, it’s best to take cues from how they started in the workplace. New employees often need onboarding to better integrate them with the company they are about to work in. Following this same line of thinking, companies need to ensure that they have a proper offboarding session to manage employees leaving the company in a smooth way, with all the information and experiences they have. 

The Continued Struggles of Offboarding

Offboarding is not an easy process by any means. Often the concept of even having to manage a departing employee sends all kinds of inner cognitive dissonance warning signals to both the departing employee and to you as a team manager or member of the HR  team.

It becomes hard to ensure efficient collaboration with a departing employee during the last few weeks of their stay, as you know they are leaving anyway, while their responsibilities still need to be managed in real-time. 

This concept of responsibilities goes deeper than just your employee’s individual capabilities. Organizational experts call this concept “deep smarts”, which is seen in phenomena of people working in organizations that just gives people “the stuff that produces that mysterious quality, good judgment”, writers Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap explain. “Those who have deep smarts can see the whole picture and yet zoom in on a specific problem others haven’t been able to diagnose”, they continue on the topic.

Deep smarts are a deeply useful asset for organizations to have as it pertains not just to overall capabilities but to individual expertise in specific areas key to your operations. Unfortunately, businesses don’t seem to manage these assets well, especially during times of offboarding. When a company loses a key employee, a large chunk of “deep smarts” go with them, and your operational efficiencies are likely to suffer due to that. 

The Difficulty of Unmanaged Offboarding

Companies might think that the buck of responsibility ends when the ties are officially cut on paper between your team and the departing employee. But often the employee in question has a few more weeks remaining in the company which can vary from company to company. Managers often sum up the offboarding process through a single document that outlines the responsibilities of the departing employee and a rough transition guide to the rest of the team, as explained by HR Expert and Professor of Management John Sullivan. Yet items like this are not sufficient to cover the true potential loss your organization faces in regard to unmanaged offboarding. 

Those Leaving Feel in “Limbo”

The first impact likely to be felt by an improperly managed offboarding procedure is on the departing employee themselves. Imagine you yourself are leaving a position you’ve held for a while. There might be some remnants of loyalty and responsibility, but a large chunk of the time you have left in the company will feel like a state of limbo of sorts. You won’t necessarily feel part of any particular project that you have worked on as transitions are likely to occur, and you are also not incentivized to put in any more effort as the company is no longer actively pushing you for productivity in this regard.

Experts in change management call this the “neutral zone”, as coined by William Bridges in his landmark book “Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change”. The neutral zone is a key component in change management that occurs right after the status quo is officially ended, which in this case is the employee's departure from the company. As this end is solidified, the neutral zone is the time when the employee still needs the most guidance in order to get to their (and likely your own) new beginning post-departure. 

Effects on the Team

The effects of this departure from the status quo or “neutral zone” once the employee is set to depart extend past their own case and are likely to affect the surrounding team as well. More than just losing someone who contributed to the work provided, there is likely a loss of interpersonal relationships that allowed them to find the work much more efficient and manageable. These types of relationships also guarantee better knowledge sharing, allowing team members to tap into the expertise of others to get guidance on a particularly complex task. 

The effects aren’t short-lived either, as it typically requires a new employee to come into the team almost an entire year just to be able to catch up to where their predecessor was before. This includes developing a new relationship, working dynamics, and possible efficiencies within the organization. This can cause losses in productivity, employee satisfaction, and even output generation as an employee leaves and a new one comes in to take their place. 

External Complications

The departure of an employee, especially when mismanaged, causes huge problems for the company not just internally but potentially externally as well. In a competitive marketplace and relatively fast-moving economy, information leveraged in a particular way can prove the success or demise of any particular business initiative.

Employees often manage plenty of confidential information working for a particular company which they are normally required to keep to themselves and other internal stakeholders throughout their tenure. Departing employees, however, present the threat of possible data leaks and integrity losses (even if their contract can anticipate this) as they are given the potentiality of releasing said information to third parties who might leverage it against the company. Almost $59 billion is lost through intellectual property theft each year based on a study by the American Bar Association

5 Key Things to Better Manage Offboarding

While not every problem can be fully erased when it comes to dealing with a departing employee, there are ways to mitigate certain issues through proper offboarding management practices that can not only save your departing employees the anxiety of uncertainty but allow you to better transition from this likely impactful change. 

Provide a Plan

First and foremost, you’ll need to have a plan. Now, this step is set up to be intentionally a little non-specific as each company is likely to have its own ways of managing transitions that might be codified as part of their organization’s standard procedures. 

A key difference then is how you as a manager will provide a plan in executing whatever process is in place to ensure that this offboarding is as smooth as it can be. One of the most basic ways to go about developing a plan for departure is to lay out the expected state of your team after your employee departs and begin working backwards to see how you can reach that intended “new beginning”. Including timelines will be imperative as well as your departing employee is likely non-flexible with theirs.

Ensure an Open Line of Communication

As part of the overall planning process that you want to have, you’ll need to ensure you have an open line of communication with the departing employee to ensure that both your and their points are getting addressed. This can range from expectations of work as the employee begins to depart as well as requests from both of you to make the transition much smoother. 

Naturally, this is an easier process if the employee is leaving on good terms. Disgruntled employees will likely be much more hesitant to continue any form of communication while approaching their departure. Still, an effort should be made to communicate between the manager and the departing employee to ensure everyone’s on the same page. 

The difficulty in offboarding arises also when the employee is leaving for a competitor in the same space (when their contract allows them to). Here, communication needs to be set in that it should be understood that information learned within an organization remains confidential even after departing. It might be a difficult topic to discuss, but doing so as a means of being transparent regarding expectations can be the difference between guaranteed data leakage to minimized information spreading. 

Keep Team Cohesion Alive

As we mentioned, the effects of an offboarded employee will resonate beyond themselves and into their spheres of influence. One of the most likely targets of this will be their direct working colleagues with who they have built a rapport over time. As such, an effective manager will ensure that their presence, while expiring, will continue on as long as possible in order to keep that camaraderie in spirit. 

It may seem counterintuitive to continue including a departing employee within the different aspects of collaboration, but the thinking here is to ensure that the very real aspect of teamwork is continued to be respected even if one of the members should choose another path in their professional careers. Doing so ensures that you limit the amount of productivity lost during the transition period as well as maintain the spirits of your team throughout the entire process. 

Create Documentation for Everything

Part of the offboarding process that is an operational necessity is the need to document everything that the employee has done in relation to their current responsibilities. While most managers might be content with creating a single document to record their final touchpoints and who these will be transitioned over towards, those looking for a smoother transition will need to delve deeper into the granular aspects of the departing employee’s tasks. 

This means ensuring that key information is properly documented regarding past executions as well while maintaining an archive of past documents worked on by the employee in an organized and efficient manner. It may be taxing, but doing so saves the team in the future from spending a lot of time gathering all the pieces of information to piece together the puzzle.

Review the Experience for the Next Time

Lastly, as with any good process, review and revision will be key in ensuring that the process itself improves with every use. The reality of employees leaving is almost a guarantee, so ensuring that the process is refined at each stage is key in keeping employees satisfied about their options inside and outside the company, as well as maintaining operational integrity regardless of personnel loss. 

Key Takeaways to Employee Offboarding

Offboarding is never a simple task and will change from company to company and manager to manager. Different situational aspects of why and how an employee is departing will need to be factored in while managers strategize to limit the impact of their leaving. But in following relatively straightforward tasks through proper planning, communication, team management, and documentation, managers will be better prepared in tackling the ever-shifting landscape of changing employment priorities. 

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