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Across my management career I have advocated for a more employee-centric approach to the offboarding process that puts a higher emphasis on the future success of the departing employee. Traditionally, there are stigmas attached to the involuntary departure experience that litter the event with negative energy. Leaving a company is not an uncommon event and it can be repositioned in many cases as an opportunity. HR managers can have a meaningful positive impact on the people they serve by removing the automatic assumption of failure from the employee offboarding process. Endings are beginnings. We must always move past something old in order to create something new. Like a birth, employee offboarding creates a fresh opportunity for more meaning to enter our lives.
Taking a closer look at employee offboarding
Departing a company is a common and healthy event. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics the annual average turnover rate was 44.5 percent. Every year in America, tens of millions of people leave their company. In virtually every case this can be a moment for growth and an opportunity for others to bring greater satisfaction. But our current employee offboarding systems are set up by design to be confrontational and accusatory. If an employee leaves a company for another job, both the employee and the employer can feel the need to explain why the other side was to blame. Conversely, if the employer is initiating the departure, there is risk management pressure to essentially prove that the employee was deficient in critical ways and given ample opportunity to address those critical gaps.
The need to mitigate wrongful termination allegations (or simply the urge to protect our management reputations) has a cost. That cost is a system that is adversarial by design.
I believe there is a better approach but it starts with rethinking the very mission and purpose of work in the 21st century. Here’s how I came to feel this way…
A new perspective
Our company, Hancock Lumber, began doing business in 1848 and I am part of the 6th generation of my family to work there having served as CEO since 1998. We are vertically integrated across the forest products industry with 550 employees leading our activity at 14 sites in Maine and New Hampshire. We are a six-time best place to work in Maine recipient and our annualized turnover rate is around 15 percent.
In 2010, at the peak of the housing and mortgage market collapse, I began to have trouble speaking. When I went to talk all the muscles in my throat would spasm, squeeze, and contract. Talking, something I had done a lot of as a CEO, was suddenly a major chore.
A couple years later I serendipitously began traveling to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Pine Ridge is statistically the poorest place in America. There I encountered an entire community that did not feel fully heard.
Putting the two experiences together helped me conclude that there are lots of ways for humans to lose a piece of their voice in this world. Perhaps even the very purpose of a life on earth is to self-actualize. What if we are all just here trying to find and release our own true voice?
Contemplating this possibility changed the way I thought about leadership. I have since become very passionate about creating a work culture where every voice feels trusted, respected, valued, and heard. This led me to rethink the very purpose of our company’s existence. As a result, we changed our mission. The new mission of our company is to be meaningful, in more than just economic ways, to the people who work there.
Why am I telling you this story? Because the mission of the organization sets the tone for the employee offboarding process. If the sole constituent of a corporation is the stockholder than the departing employee is a secondary focus and an interchangeable part. In this traditional view the offboarding process becomes a corporate exercise in removing and replacing.
But what if the mission of the company was the betterment and advancement of all the people in our corporate orbit? With that paradigm shift in mind, the act of offboarding takes on a whole new purpose and significance. The primary job is now to help the exiting employee depart with as much grace, pride, and confidence as possible. The fact that a specific job was not an optimal fit for an individual potentially now becomes something to honor and celebrate. “Ok, so we’ve found an occupation that does not energize you or leave you with a deep sense of fulfillment. This is progress, not failure. Let’s seize this moment to think about what types of work experiences might captivate you.” That’s the conversation that HR professionals should foster and facilitate.
Rarely in my career have I seen an employee be exceptionally happy, highly motivated, and simultaneously unsuccessful. A struggling employee is almost always unsatisfied in return. All that suggests is that this particular job is not the highest and best future for that individual. In this capacity, the HR professional has a guidance counselor role opportunity. The lack of success applying to one college does not rule out the opportunity for success at all colleges.
I am advocating for HR professionals to take more responsibility when it comes to the employee offboarding process and to help their departed employees exit with maximum dignity and confidence. This approach will enhance the reputation of your company and, more importantly, it will advance the interests of humanity. All corporations will ultimately ebb and flow with the success of society as a whole. In the 21st century, business does not have the luxury of delegating social progress to others. We must instead take responsibility for maximizing the well-being of all the people in our systems. Departing involuntarily can be traumatic and companies need to invest in better systems, dialogue, pay transition strategies, placement support, and terminology for transcending the experience into a moment of growth and opportunity. It was, after all, your company that took this individual in.
Helping people leave companies with grace and providing a meaningful employee offboarding experience can have a transformative impact on society. HR leaders and professionals have an opportunity in that moment of transition to advance humanity as a whole, not just close a personal file.
Learn more about the importance of fostering a caring culture by accessing Achievers’ webinar, “The Humanity Component: Better Quality of Life = Better Quality of Business.”