On the Way Out? Vagueness

The second sign that your critical employee is about to leave can generically be labeled as “vagueness.”

When your highly valued employee is asked about the Thursday afternoon she took off, and the explanation is “just running some errands” instead of “I had to take my car to the repair shop, and let me tell you what happened…” your level of suspicion that she is hunting for a new job should increase by orders of magnitude.

Vague about where they’ve been or what they’re doing is some of the most obvious evidence that things are about to change, but tell-tale vagueness goes beyond just obfuscating when quizzed time off.  This vagueness flows into many elements involved in daily work, particularly when those elements relate to the future.

There are many employees that are a bit ambiguous when it comes to future plans, but usually not your actively engaged employees (see the first post in this series for more info on the “actively engaged” – When They are on the Way Out).  With these employees, you should look for a change in their outlook, a sudden break from past behaviors, or a dramatic drop in effort level – particularly as it relates to specific actions that will be taking place somewhere in the future.

Here are a few examples to that should help clarify what I mean:


  • Manager:  “How do you plan to hand that delicate negotiation?”
  • Expected answer:  “First I’ll explain how we came up with the numbers, then I’ll…”
  • Vague answer:  “I’m sure I’ll be able to handle it when the time comes.”


  •  Manager:  “When can I expect that report?”
  • Expected answer:  “I can get you a draft next Friday, if you need to see it.”
  • Vague answer:  “A couple of weeks” (which is probably the day after she plans to resign).


  • Manager:  “What do you see as the biggest problem with the new policy?”
  • Expected answer:  “The way we are handling the offering of overtime…”
  • Vague answer:  “It sounds good to me.”

You get the idea.  The vague response typically pushes decisions into the future (one where the soon-to-depart employee doesn’t plan to be around), is short on details, and/or foregoes any mental “heavy lifting.”  Employees on their way out respond this way because they are already in the process of “checking out.”  Let’s face it, if you plan to leave in a relatively short time, it’s tough to put your game face on and engage full-throttle.

The cover of my latest novel.  Get more info by clicking the image.

The cover of my latest novel.  Get more info by clicking the image.

I wouldn’t get overly excited about a single vague response from your normally engaged employee, but if you see a few over a relatively short period of time, it paints a picture that you’ll later recognize as “the beginning of the end.”

Vagueness usually creeps into behaviors gradually, increasing by significant amounts as the end draws near.  If you’re readily noticing it, you might be too late to stop the employee from quitting.

Still, better to take action now rather than waiting for a resignation and then trying to counteroffer.  There are problems with counteroffers – the employee often feels you’ve already been undercompensating them, and they believe they had to put a gun to your head to be fairly valued.  Most employees to whom I’ve successfully made counteroffers eventually left the company – usually within a relatively short time period after the first time they threaten to quit.  Better to never get to this point.


While not nearly as obvious as taking odd time off (see:  On the Way Out?  Taking Mysterious Time Off), dramatic increases in vagueness is another reliable sign an employee is looking for other opportunities.  When you notice this behavior, chances are good that you will have only a short time to counter it before the employee quits.  Acting before a resignation, however, is still vastly superior to counteroffering, at least if you hope to preserve the employee over the long term.

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To the right is the cover for DELIVERABLES.  This novel features a senior manager approached by government officials to spy on his employer, concerned about how a "deal" the company is negotiating might put critical technical secrets into the hands of enemies of the United States.  Of course, things are not exactly as it seems....

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.