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Exit Strategies: A Call for a Human Touch

As an executive recruiter, my daily focus is on hiring and onboarding of new talent. But you can’t start somewhere new without leaving another job behind. How people depart from their former employer can significantly impact their career progression and success in a new role. Good exit strategies are also important for employers as it affects organisational branding and hiring outcomes. A company's reputation with regards to treatment of staff is directly related to its ability to attract and retain top talent.


To explore this topic further, I met with HR director Sally Pedlow, who brings over 20 years of sector experience, and Gillian Kelly, long-time director of Outplacement Australia. They both have extensive expertise in working with staff and organisations going through change. And we all agree: how companies exit their employees is just as important, or maybe even more important than how they onboard new hires. 


Thinking through exit strategies 

Gillian points out that many organisations have their onboarding covered, but organisational change can happen fast, and when it comes to redundancies, sometimes there isn’t as detailed a strategy for sudden staff departures. “Time spent planning someone’s exit can make a big difference to the individual and organisation.”


Gillian’s passion for this topic is unmistakable: “There is a human involved in all these processes and decisions. When, where and who will deliver the message? How will the practicalities be managed? How will news of the individual’s departure be communicated in the business? Organisations that think about the human touch when staff are departing, enable the exit to be handled with respect and compassion, and ultimately have stronger employer brands. That is the big call out that I want to make here.”


Sally agrees that all these details matter to ensure that it is a human centred experience. “Of course, it is important to meet legal requirements and other business aspects that need to be upheld. But the human touch needs to come first”. 


The impact of an exit on employees

As we continue discussing the need for human centricity, Sally underscores the impact an exit has on people, particularly if it is an employer initiated termination, such as a performance issue or a disciplinary matter. “These are unique situations, with a real intersection of personal and professional domains. It’s probably going to be the worst day and the worst experience of somebody’s career, if not of their life. It has an enormous impact, even when it’s handled really well. So imagine the consequences when it’s handled poorly and ineffectively. That has a huge effect on people. It undermines their self-esteem and can have severe financial implications."


Gillian adds: “Most organisations take genuine care to handle exits sensitively, but occasionally, we still see the exception where unfortunately it’s been managed poorly. When the exit is not handled empathetically, it is a lot harder for people to move on. People get caught up in negative emotions and are often stuck ruminating and reflecting backwards instead of moving forward. With a human-centred approach people may still be sad or even angry but they can come to a point of acceptance much more quickly. And in that state of mind, they are much better able to deal with the practicalities of their career transition.”


Organisational reputation

Sally points out that it is not just the employee who is affected, there are also reputational consequences for the employer. “People within and outside of the organisation are watching. Bad exit experiences can be detrimental for a company’s reputation as well as for internal morale. People start to wonder if they are next, which can really impact productivity, engagement and cause good employees to leave. There is always the watercooler conversation. The way people are treated when they leave is a great test of a company’s lived values - in comparison to the values on the wall.”


Gillian agrees: “Staff want to see that the people leaving are respected and cared for, especially if they have been working together for a long time. The care that a company gives to departing staff has an enormous impact on the people that are staying.”


What can organisations do better?

Gillian: “Regarding redundancies, providing practical support when an individual needs it, can be invaluable. If redeployments are occurring, consider providing career transition support at an earlier stage so people can assess options and put their best foot forward for internal opportunities. When it comes to support following departure, EAP support and outplacement care can enable people to move through the emotional trauma of redundancy and navigate the practicalities of job search as they work toward a new future.”     


Sally: “Good organisations prioritise the human side of the experience.  Make sure leaders have training, support and guidance to know how to handle exit discussions in a compassionate way. And it’s often about the little things. Making sure termination pay is processed quickly and accurately, extending access to EAP, and sometimes simply acknowledging their contributions. Beyond that, be as generous as you can be. Provide outplacement support, extend benefits like insurance post employment, allow people to keep their phone or their laptop. If they don’t have their own, they can use it for their job-hunting journey."


Final piece of advice

Sally: “Just be kind. Every person who departs an organisation is a human being. Treat people with respect and dignity. Do what you can. Make a very traumatic experience a little less traumatic. And while it can be hard for managers to deliver the bad news, remember that it is always a 100 times worse for the person who is going through the exit process. Dignity, respect, kindness and compassion are key – and they don’t cost anything”


Gillian: “It’s never easy to be the one who has to exit someone from the business. Take the time and space needed to plan and manage the process so you can deliver it in a way that you feel reflects the true values of your business. Of course, even with the best planning, it can be natural for people to respond emotionally. Try not to take it personally when volatile emotions rear their head. Be gentle with the person involved and be gentle with yourself. 

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