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What’s the best way to exit an employee from your organisation?

Go on now, go!

Sometimes I understand what it must be like to be a doctor, or a vet, or a dentist.

Because when people discover what I do for a living, they immediately want to bend my ear. Not about a gippy tummy, a moulting dog or a toothache though. Because I’m a business psychologist, they want a word about an employee they’re having problems with. Who, they feel, is no longer right for the business.

It seems to be a perennial problem. And one that managers tend to think can only be solved by going down a disciplinary route. Or by making the role redundant.

Both options are pretty drastic. Both can have serious repercussions for both employee and business.

But there is another way to exit an employee from your organisation. A more subtle, sophisticated approach that works better for everyone involved.

Taking a formal approach to exit an employee

When I’m approached in this way, my first question is always: “what conversations have you had with your employee?”

Because this, of course, is critical. Addressing the issue with the employee is the first step towards a resolution. Unfortunately, though, it’s often a difficult conversation that people prefer to avoid.

Many of the managers I speak to though have already broached the issue with their recalcitrant employee. But their performance hasn’t improved and may even have got worse.

The manager feels like they’ve explored all possible options and now are left, reluctantly, considering removing the employee from the business.

And, when it gets to this stage, managers often feel like they’re left with no choice but to take a formal approach. Perhaps the organisation has a structured HR disciplinary process – performance review, verbal and written warning, dismissal. Or they go through a redundancy process.

By doing it in a formal way, they’re trying to minimise the possibility of legal and financial repercussions – an appeal, a tribunal, a claim of unfair dismissal and so on. But even if this is avoided, there’s still plenty of upheaval, emotion and damage involved.

And perhaps they take a formal route too because it seems like there’s no alternative. But they’re wrong.

The end of the line?

It’s worth acknowledging that there will come a time for all of us when we need to move on from our current role. Maybe we’ve outgrown it and are looking for new challenges. Or maybe it’s outgrown us – the business has moved on but left us behind.

These things happen. Businesses change direction, adapt to survive, take advantage of new technologies or opportunities.

But this can leave previously successful people floundering. They may not have the right skill set or values or motivation to continue working within this changing landscape. This means their performance and self-confidence nosedives, leaving them feeling like a failure. Feeling out of control.

An alternative exit strategy

Rather than effectively forcing your employee out of the door, how much better would it be if they opened it themselves?

Instead of the formal route, help your employee to realise they’re not in the right role for them any more. So it’s the employee that takes the steps necessary to exit themselves from the business.

I’ll give you an example.

A client of mine was looking to exit an employee whose abilities were at odds with their changing business. But they took an unusual approach to doing so.

Recognising that the business was moving in a new direction, my client identified the new skills needed and then assessed the whole team against those criteria using a development assessment centre managed by external facilitators.

We external consultants then sat down with each of the participants to discuss the results of their assessment. The client encouraged us to have very frank (and confidential) conversations with people and – where the skills gap was too large – to look at alternative career options for them.

These conversations revealed two members of staff who was unhappy in their roles, but who hadn’t realised it until they’d been given the opportunity and space to think about it. One of them was the person the organisation wanted to leave.

He had come from a small business where he’d worn a number of hats. In this larger corporation he felt stifled, tied down by bureaucracy. This made him feel ineffective which had impacted upon his self-confidence. But he felt like there was nowhere else he could go.

When we talked about his strengths though he realised it wasn’t that he was a failure, he was just in the wrong sort of organisation for him. And that there were plenty of opportunities out there more suitable for him. He told me, ‘I wouldn’t have been able to do it without you showing me I could.’

He left the discussion feeling empowered and ready to make better career choices. Shortly after he left the business.

This is the major benefit of taking this approach over a disciplinary or redundancy process. By discovering the right path for themselves, the employee leaves feeling self-confident and ready for new challenges. Rather than feeling rejected.

Conducting a development centre for the whole team can also help high-performing employees feel invested in. There is the risk you’ll lose people you want to keep. But that’s ok too. They may have the skills you need but if they’re not motivated to stay, they’re not right for your business.

How to help an employee discover the way out

Here are my tips to making this potentially difficult conversation a more rewarding one for both parties:

1. Separate the role from the person. Think about: what do we need in the role? what are the desired performance outputs? what does good look like?

2. Review the job description and person specification to make sure it’s up to date and aligned with changes in the business, the direction it’s going in etc.

3. Help build the employee’s self-awareness of their strengths and weaknesses so they can consider their options from a place of certainty and confidence.

4. Be open and honest with the individual about their development path – what’s needed and how might they gain those skills? Offer to support them in this.

5. Consider involving external facilitators. The relationship between manager and employee can sometimes be too close to have an objective discussion. It can feel very sensitive and can often get emotional. An external party can offer objectivity and help to open the employee’s eyes to external opportunities.

How have you helped people find their own way out of your organisation in a positive way for both of you? I’d be interested in your stories – please share in the comments below or drop me an email.

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