Company Culture
Leadership / Workplace culture

How to respond when a long-tenured employee quits? With grace

Every departure is a chance for the rest of your organization to consider what kind of place this is. Forget your employer brand; it’s a moment of humanity.

The team having a blast in December 2023. ( Valerio)

This piece first appeared in CEO Chris Wink’s Builders newsletter. It features tips on growing powerful teams and dynamic workplaces. Sign up to get more pieces like this in your inbox before they appear on our site.

One of my worst moments as a manager was at an all-team happy hour.

It was a fun farewell for a popular and charismatic longtime coworker. The whole team was in the newsroom. There were drinks and jokes and stories. I was acting like a brat.

Never mind that this teammate was a mentee of mine. Never mind that their success genuinely made me happy. Never mind that they were one of my favorite people. I seethed in the corner.

Other employees had left my company before, but I didn’t like how this resignation was handled, and so I was brooding. Toward the end, everyone started sharing memories about our outgoing teammate. All were feeding and demonstrating a vibrant team culture. Eventually I was the only one left. All I could summon were a few empty platitudes. What a jerk.

Looking back years later, I still squirm in embarrassment. It was one of the smallest moments of my career. Soon after it became clear just how far my actions were from the leader I wanted to be.

An obvious point finally clicked. When an employee resigns, you don’t only act with grace for them, you also do it for every other employee — and the future ones, too. Every departure is a chance for the rest of your organization to consider what kind of place this is. Forget your employer brand; it’s a moment of humanity.

A pandemic period of high employee turnover generated a wave of best practices on how organizations and managers should respond to resignations. And good thing.

There’s always a natural tension for people-centric organizations and effective managers: You’re going to develop people, none of whom will work with you forever. Now, as quit rates have come down from their pandemic peaks and we reach some kind of normal, it’s a fine time to reflect on what kind of leader you want to be in these moments. Because if you lead, you’ll have them.

Let me make a promise: You don’t want to be that manager I was years back.

I like to think I learned a lot from that experience. Not long after my botched leadership moment, I helped spin up an annual alumni event, encouraging former employees to stay connected with I text regularly with a growing cohort of impressive former teammates. Part of that is plainly rational: More than a quarter of new hires in any given year are so-called “boomerang employees,” or those returning to a place they once worked, according to a recent analysis. But it’s also just the right thing to do. We spend so much time working, and god willing, we most often do this with people we like. Work friends are great friends. It’s nice to be reminded of that.

This is top of mind for me this week because I got another crack at handling the resignation of a long-tenured employee I adore. Timing wasn’t perfect. I’ll miss working with her. And yet, I’m so happy for outgoing Managing Editor Julie Zeglen, who happens to be the person who edited this on her last day. She is one of the most thoughtful and fun and caring people I’ve ever worked with. If I say anything else nice about her, you’ll assume she added the compliments herself.

I’ve cheered her even more than I’ve teased her since she resigned, surely a welcome respite from our trash-talking rapport. She’ll do great things, and we’ll stay in touch. It’s so much easier to express my pride in her than I did for that other treasured teammate of mine those years ago.

Partly that’s because is a stronger organization than we were then. I’m surrounded by other coworkers I cherish, too. More importantly, though, I’m a stronger leader. I’m a stronger person. And of course, the organization’s development, like my own, is only because of the people who work here, and have worked here, and who will work here.

I’ve worked with so many special people whom I love and admire. I hope to work with more of them. Congratulations, Julie.

Series: Builders

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