Offboarding, the process of transitioning departing employees for various reasons while preserving their dignity and respect, represents a fundamental aspect of responsible and compassionate workforce management. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding an employee's departure—whether due to performance issues, organizational restructuring, voluntary termination, or other factors—maintaining a commitment to treating these team members fairly and empathically is paramount. Offboarding with dignity is imperative.
In the dynamic landscape of modern workplaces, the departure of employees is an inevitable process that can significantly influence organizational culture, morale, and reputation. As organizations continue to evolve, understanding the diverse reasons that drive individuals to leave their jobs is crucial for developing effective offboarding strategies. Equally important is the recognition that how an organization handles employee departures holds implications for the overall employee experience and, by extension, the engagement and support of employees. Through such a lens, there are compelling reasons for organizations to invest in structured and empathetic offboarding, ultimately fostering a workplace culture that values not only its employees' contributions but also their dignity in departure.
Consider the scale of the issue
The civilian labor force currently has 168 million people in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 3.5 million people are quitting their jobs per month (2.6%), added to an additional 1.6 million (1.0%) per month due to involuntary terminations and layoffs. The total number of separations in July 2023 alone was 5.5 million people needing to be off-boarded from their jobs per month nationally, when “other separations” due to retirement, death, disability, and transfers are included.
The trend is merely a continuation, with over 50.5 million Americans voluntarily quitting their jobs in 2022, which increased over the well-publicized upsurge of voluntary departures during “The Great Resignation.” Add to that the wave of post-pandemic layoffs of late 2022 and the rate of employee departures is a continuing challenge for both HR and leadership teams.
The challenge, while led by a desire to stem employee turnover in general, is to effectively manage the outflow of both voluntary and involuntary terminations in a manner that avoids negative press and employee and applicant perceptions while preserving the company’s reputation and goodwill. Establishing a process and skills for offboarding with dignity is critical to achieving those ends.
The reasons why employees leave organizations
Employees leave organizations for a wide range of reasons. Still, when they leave voluntarily, it is most often due to a combination of factors related to a lack of professional growth and advancement, poor perceived managerial support, compensation relative to their expectations, a disconnect between their values or goals and those of the organization, skill/role mismatch, work-life balance, commuting requirements, and other job-related issues. Personal reasons range from family or health status changes to a desired relocation or retirement.
On the other hand, employees can be discharged involuntarily for various reasons, which often depend on the specific circumstances and policies of the company or organization. Common reasons for involuntary employee discharge:
- Performance Issues: Occurs when an employee consistently fails to meet job expectations, achieve goals, or perform satisfactorily. The employee may be found to be lacking in skills and has not responded to either training/development and/or progressive discipline.
- Misconduct: This can include a wide range of behaviors, such as theft, dishonesty, harassment, violence, insubordination, or violation of company policies related to substance abuse, conflicts of interest, internet usage, workplace conduct, safety protocols, or other guidelines.
- Attendance/Job Abandonment: When an employee fails to report to work on time or at all without prior approval, typically defined as a designated number of consecutive days in company policy.
- Layoff/Reduction in Force: When an organization needs to downsize, restructure, or cut costs due to financial reasons or a role(s) is eliminated due to it becoming redundant due to automation, technology changes, or a shift in organizational needs.
- Incompatibility: Sometimes, an employee's work style, personality, or values may not align with the company's culture or team dynamics, leading to termination. This is commonly found with executive and senior-level employees whose influence is much broader than line employees.
Of course, employment laws and regulations vary by country and jurisdiction and often provide specific protections for employees against wrongful termination. Employers should follow established procedures, document performance issues, and ensure that employee terminations are made under applicable labor laws to avoid legal consequences.
The benefits of offboarding employees with dignity and respect
Establishing offboarding with dignity as a standard in treating terminating employees is most frequently associated with voluntary terminations, as those individuals often leave with reputations of having provided quality work efforts and outputs and appearing reasonably well-aligned with company values and standards. At the same time, while HR experts promote extending offboarding with dignity similarly to those identified as expendable due to business or performance-related issues for involuntary termination, they are not necessarily treated accordingly. The issue may be due to the discomfort managers and colleagues experience when one of their own is selectively pushed out, or perhaps their denigration of the individual's relative contributions, given their being retained when the other is deemed less suitable for continued employment. Whatever the case, some significant reasons and advantages exist for providing all departing employees compassionate and respectful treatment.
1. Preservation of reputation
Treating departing employees well helps maintain a positive reputation for the organization among alumni, job candidates, and the local community. Former employees who feel they were treated respectfully are less likely to speak negatively about their experience through word of mouth or on social media, which can affect the company's employer brand and ability to attract new talent.
2. Positive employee morale
A culture of respectful offboarding sends a solid message to remaining employees that the organization values its people. This can maintain employee confidence and overall job satisfaction while reducing “survivor’s guilt,” contributing to higher retention rates and increased productivity among the remaining workforce.
3. Alumni network
Employees who leave on good terms can become part of an organization's alumni network. These individuals can serve as brand ambassadors, potential clients or contractor partners, talent referrers, or even future rehires, bringing their skills and experience back to the company when circumstances change.
4. Knowledge transfer
Respectful offboarding encourages departing employees to share their knowledge, best practices, and insights with their colleagues before and after leaving. This knowledge transfer can minimize disruptions and help maintain productivity.
5. Legal and ethical amenability
Treating departing employees respectfully reduces the risk of legal disputes and potential litigation related to wrongful termination or discrimination claims.
6. Enhanced employee experience (EX)
A respectful offboarding process, including exit interviews and feedback mechanisms, provides a valuable opportunity to gather insights into employee experiences and reasons for leaving. This information can inform improvements in organizational culture, policies, and practices and positively influence candidate perceptions.
7. Reduced stress and anxiety
A respectful offboarding process can help ease the emotional and psychological toll of leaving a job, reducing stress and anxiety for departing employees. This can often offer solace and comfort to remaining employees as they maintain relationships with departed colleagues for many years afterward.
8. Positive impact on corporate culture
Demonstrating respect during offboarding aligns with a positive corporate culture and reinforces the organization's values. This, in turn, can foster a more inclusive, supportive, and ethical workplace environment.
Elements of an effective offboarding program
An effective employee offboarding program and process ensures a smooth and respectful transition for departing employees. It helps preserve the organization's reputation, minimizes disruptions, and can even turn departing employees into advocates for the company. Offboarding with dignity helps ensure an orderly transition that meets the organization’s security, property, finance, and documentation requirements.
Clear policy and procedure documentation.
Provide departing employees with a clear and comprehensive offboarding guide that outlines the entire process, including timelines and expectations. Automation can speed the process while providing a checklist that can guide and track departing employee compliance with the requirements.
Exit interview process.
Conduct exit interviews and/or surveys to gather feedback from departing employees about their experiences, reasons for leaving, and suggestions for improvement. This data should be collected from all employees regardless of the reason for leaving, as feedback is essential for providing an outlet for their concerns while demonstrating respect for their opinions and making necessary organizational and process changes.
Notice period and transition planning.
Define the notice period required for resigning employees and establish a plan for their smooth transition out of the organization. Work to ensure proper knowledge transfer and completing pending out-processing-related tasks. Especially with retiring or laid-off employees, such a transfer is made possible by longer lead times than other for-cause or voluntary terminations.
Ensure all legal requirements are met during offboarding, including compliance with employment laws, regulations, and contractual obligations. Federal, state, and local laws that guide reductions in force typically have special legal or contractual requirements for notice periods, provision of earned pay, etc.
Benefits and pay.
Provide departing employees with specific and tailored information on their final paychecks, including any outstanding salary, accrued vacation days, or other benefits. Provide explicit guidance, instructions, and tools for continuing, transitioning, or terminating benefits such as health insurance or retirement plans.
Outline the procedure for returning company property, such as laptops, access cards, keys, and other physical equipment. Provide clear guidance regarding company work-product and intellectual property that the employee either generated as part of their role(s) or was provided to support their work. Provide a checklist to departing employees to ensure nothing is overlooked. Ensure that departing employees reaffirm their commitment to confidentiality agreements and non-compete clauses, if applicable.
Access and security.
Safeguard the organization's security by revoking access to systems, databases, and physical premises promptly and appropriately. This includes deactivating email accounts and ensuring the return of access cards, digital memory devices, company phones, etc.
Allow departing employees to say farewell to their colleagues and team members whenever possible. Consider sending an announcement to the organization to acknowledge their contributions. Have a senior leader who knows them send a goodbye message or note thanking them for their service.
Documentation and records management.
Properly handle and archive employee records, ensuring compliance with data protection regulations. Retain essential documents and electronic records while respecting privacy and confidentiality.
Alumni network and references.
Encourage departing employees to join the organization's alumni network if one exists and provide a link to any associated digital network. Offer to provide references or recommendations and maintain a positive relationship for future collaborations.
Support and counseling services.
Offer access to counseling services (e.g., employee assistance program) or resources to help departing employees cope with the emotional and psychological aspects of leaving their jobs. Particularly for employees who left because of a layoff or other involuntary termination, this can provide a useful outlet and resource to ease the transition and any related frustration and/or anger.
Leading practices in handling involuntary terminations
Handling involuntary terminations is a sensitive and delicate matter that should be handled by professionals who are trained and prepared appropriately. Managing these with dignity and respect is crucial for supporting the departing employee during their final (and often psychologically painful) process with the company and maintaining a positive workplace culture and reputation. Keeping in mind the human aspects while maintaining a professional posture (e.g., remaining calm, and not getting emotionally entangled in the employee’s experience) is a tricky balance, but one that is necessary to provide a smooth process that minimizes the employee’s discomfort. Leading practices to ensure a compassionate and professional approach include:
1. Be prepared.
Ensure that HR and line management are well-prepared for the termination process, with guidance for how and what will be communicated to the employee, how to handle disagreements or challenges to the decisions, etc. Have all necessary paperwork, agreements, guidelines, and resources ready for presentation to the affected employee.
2. Maintain privacy and confidentiality.
Conduct termination meetings in a private and confidential setting to protect the dignity of the departing employee and maintain their privacy. Communicate the employee's departure to relevant teams or colleagues professionally and respectfully, avoiding disseminating unnecessary details to non-involved managers and peers.
3. Communicate clearly.
Present the reason for the termination empathetically, relating previous conversations and documentation to briefly provide the rationale while acknowledging their difficulty. Provide details such as the effective date, severance pay, and other assistance the organization offers. Use simple and non-judgmental language to avoid causing unnecessary distress.
4. Listen actively.
Practice active listening to understand the employee's perspective, concerns, and feedback. Show empathy and demonstrate understanding without being defensive. Maintain eye contact and be aware of body language or facial expressions communicating discomfort or disagreement.
5. Provide support.
Offer appropriate support and resources to help the departing employee with their transition, such as information on unemployment benefits, job search assistance, or counseling services. Provide written documentation of any available resources and contact information (e.g., website URLs, contact names and phone numbers, etc.).
6. Respect emotions.
Understand that the employee may have emotional reactions, such as anger, sadness, or shock. Be prepared for their questioning of the decision and rationale and express understanding of their position. Allow them to share their feelings while maintaining a calm and empathetic demeanor.
7. Maintain professionalism.
Conduct the termination meeting professionally and composedly, refraining from personal criticism, argumentative behaviors, or adverse remarks.
8. Offer the opportunity to ask questions.
Encourage the departing employee to ask questions about the process, benefits, or other matters related to their departure. Provide honest and accurate answers and any prepared materials that support their likely questions or areas needing further explanation. Avoid speaking without expertise (or management clearance) regarding legal, benefits, or other related issues.
9. Document everything.
Keep thorough records of the termination process, including what was discussed during the termination meeting, signed documents, and correspondence. Immediately report any difficulties encountered during the meeting with the appropriate experts (e.g., legal, compliance, or HR professionals).
10. Stay consistent but reflect and improve.
Apply termination procedures and communications consistently across affected employees and the broader organization to avoid perceptions of favoritism or bias. Periodically review and update termination procedures and practices based on feedback and evolving best practices.
A few final thoughts on avoiding unnecessary terminations
The challenge with terminations is trying to avoid them in the first place. While they are inevitable, particularly when employing hundreds or thousands of people at a time, understanding the genesis of bad hires, mismatches, or devolving performance issues is a core element of building a solid HR practice.
Years of experience suggest that many issues with poor cultural, skill, and performance fit stem from poor candidate selection processes and decisions. Investing in a comprehensive hiring process, tools, and methods is a powerful start to a strong and productive employment arrangement that pays dividends with higher performance, productivity, and tenure. Assessing candidates with multi-pronged evaluation methods, including thoughtful use of validated tests for culture, motivation, interpersonal skills, and the like, can provide a fuller and more objectively predictive picture of total fit. This also works well with promotion decisions, where team-based interviews, and potential assessments, particularly for team leadership or management roles, are essential elements of continuing use of formal and structured decision-making.
Secondly, continually managing employee performance and growth deliberately and consistently helps identify issues of skill and performance shortcomings, with an opportunity to coach or develop employees before their issues become bigger ones that require more dramatic interventions. This includes using more rigorous performance coaching, assessment, and calibration processes, where greater objectivity, fairness, and the need for mediation can be surfaced using multiple touchpoints and experts (managers) who can help evaluate each employee’s contributions and depth/breadth of needed skills. This overcomes the issue of individual manager bias or timidity in dealing with employee performance or productivity challenges.
Finally, additional and systemic keys to avoiding unnecessary employee terminations lie in leveraging leading methodologies and practices related to employee experience (EX), retention, employee value proposition (EVP), employee mobility, continuous learning and development, and leadership and management development. The latter is incredibly impactful, as those individuals help create the environment and drive a culture supporting the long-term retention of an organization’s valued human assets.
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