On the Way Out? Getting Personal

Up to this point I’ve focused on the various signs a manager can use to spot a subordinate preparing to quit.  Today I’ll be moving beyond detection to things you can do to stop an impending quit from happening.

People leave their jobs for a variety of reasons.  Some quits are related to dissatisfaction with the current job (pay, supervisor, coworkers, content of the work, etc).  In fact, there is some truth to the old management rubric that “people join companies and leave supervisors.”  If identified early enough, many of these issues can be corrected or resolved, giving you an opportunity to save a critical, valued employee.  I will discuss how to handle this category of pending resignations in a future post.

People also leave jobs because of opportunity.  I’ve done this myself – I was perfectly happy with my old job, but saw better opportunities to learn and advance with a different employer (in my case, one that was growing rather than one that was shrinking).  It’s unlikely there is much you can do to stop this type of departure, although I’ll give you some tips that should help you take your best shot in the next post in this series.

Finally, people leave jobs for personal reasons – often personal difficulties or tragedies.  I’ve had employees depart for all of the following things:

Prequel to Heir Apparent -- Click Image for Details

Prequel to Heir Apparent -- Click Image for Details

  • Spouse getting a new job
  • A complete career change
  • Suddenly coming into wealth
  • Care provision for children/parents
  • A need to relocate to be closer to family
  • Severe substance abuse (employee or a family member)
  • Divorce
  • Death of a family member or someone close

In today’s post, I’ll be covering these “personal reasons for quitting” and how you might deal with them.

The first challenge when it is personal is to find out what is really driving a departure decision.  Sometimes you’ll know – for example, employees have a tough time keeping it quiet when they win the lottery or had a death in the family.  More often, however, these motivations are hidden, being considered not germane to the work environment, or simply “nobody’s business.”

Of course, anything that may result in a job quit is “your business,” and you shouldn’t feel like you’re overstepping boundaries by sticking your nose in.  After all, you are actually trying to help rather than just salaciously seeking juicy subjects for gossip.

On the subject of gossip, you should NOT share any confidence with anyone who doesn’t absolutely need to know.  Yes, you might have to tell a few other managers about what is going as you try to develop an accommodation strategy, but only speak to those who must be aware of the situation.  And make sure anyone you confide in understands the sensitive nature of the subject – sometimes people that should know better still require warnings.

I’ve usually found most productive first step in saving the employee is to try to help the person put the current situation in perspective.  This might be an exploration of just how far, realistically, those lottery winnings will go (yes, this actually happened.)  Or it might be as simple as trying to get the divorcing employee to think beyond what is going on with their spouse to see where they want to be in three to five years.  The bottom line is the employee is often going through an upheaval of some sort and a perspective on the long term is often hard for them to focus on without help.

Sometimes you will find that there is nothing you can do.  When an employee is moving to Hawaii to follow a spouse’s job, you might not be able to come up with an effective strategy to counter.  When an employee wants to make a career change, moving from accounting to nursing (and you don’t employ nurses), you may simply be out of options.

Other times, you may find that the best thing for the employee is to leave.  I once managed to talk an employee into sticking around when his spouse moved to a distant city, only to watch as their marriage fell apart.  I should have realized that the best thing was for the couple to stay together and simply let him move on.  Other managers might be more utilitarian about this subject, deciding that “what they needed” takes precedence, regardless of the long term impact on the employee.  I personally won’t operate that way because I have to live with my conscience.

In a fairly large proportion of these situations, I’ve found that reasonable accommodations can be devised that will allow the employee to stay.  A change in schedule to allow for child/parent care.  A sabbatical to allow for a particular personal problem to sort out.  Professional counseling to help solve a particularly difficult problem.  These kinds of responses can not only preserve the employee, they can create a loyalty that is not normally achievable in typical boss-subordinate relationship.

But accommodation can be a two edged sword.

Other employees may view any special treatment as “unfair,” particularly if they are unaware of the personal crisis that is driving the establishment of special rules for a particular subordinate.  And occasionally I’ve seen an accommodated employee take advantage of what they eventually come to view as an entitlement.  Both of these problems can usually be solved by a simple (although sometimes uncomfortable) discussion.

A bigger problem comes when the personal event somehow changes the employee in a permanent way, taking them from the “highly-valued” category to “problem employee.”  You might think that this would be easy to solve – simply fire the person.  When you’ve been personally involved in their journey and when you have their deepest loyalty, firing the person is hard.  I’ve found it to be virtually impossible.  That’s why I recommend you only enter this path with employees that start a personal crisis as a top performer.


When your highly valued employee is on the path to quitting for personal reasons, you definitely have options.  Take the time to determine what’s driving the decision, and focus on what’s best for everyone in the long term.  In many situations, you’ll find an accommodation or support strategy can meet the needs of the employee in the short term, while preserving them on your team for the long term.

Other Posts in this Series:

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To the right is the cover for HEIR APPARENT.  Someone is killing corporate leaders in Kansas City.  But who?  The police and FBI pursue a "serial killer" theory, leaving Joel Smith and Evangelina Sikes to examine other motives.  As the pair zero in on the perpetrator, they put their own lives at risk.  There are multiple suspects and enough clues for the reader to identify the killer in this classic whodunnit set in a corporate crucible.

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