What do you do when … your best employee quits?

Driving to work, you reflect on your business – and it makes you smile.

“I’m working with a terrific team that delivers excellent work and the clients are asking for more. It feels so good to have a strong team behind me,” you’re thinking. “When I don’t have to fight fires all the time, I can focus on new business and I’m killing it! Bringing in these great new clients is fun.”

Nadir is a particular bright spot. Though he’s only been on the team a couple of years, he’s made a real difference. He’s smart, aggressive, and ambitious – and he’s channeled all of that into delivering great work to the clients. Plus, you got him for a steal! He’s worth twice what you’re paying him.

As you walk into the office Nadir walks up to greet you,“Can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Sure, let me get a cup of coffee first,” you reply. He follows you into your office anyway and drops a bomb.

“Boss, I’m quitting.”

He keeps going, talking about how difficult a decision it was, but he got this really great offer out of the blue… You don’t really hear any of that. All the optimism and confidence that you were feeling on the way in is draining away. You think, “This isn’t happening … it can’t happen!”

This is a blow. It’s natural for you to go right into the Five Stages of Grief: Denial (He can’t leave), Anger (That idiot!), Bargaining (What if I give him more money?), Depression (I’m never going to find someone as good as him…), and finally Acceptance. And it’s ok to have those feelings, you can’t have them now with your team member as an audience. You need to focus on business and get through this conversation.

“Oh, Nadir, this is a terrible shock! What happened? Where are you going?” It’s almost like it’s someone else’s voice saying it. What’s worse, he’s going to a place that is a real meat grinder. They are giving him a big raise (but still underpaying him) but you know this is a tough work environment that likely won’t be great for Nadir’s career long-term. Now you are really worked up; he’s making a big mistake and leaving your team?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not at my best when I’m all worked up by something that has blind-sided me ! So I want to buy myself time to think. I’d take the resignation letter that he has in his hands, and ask him if you can review this and schedule a time to talk later in the day.

Once you calm down, here are a few things to think about.

Counter offers rarely work.

I don’t know about you, but my first instinct is to counter offer. They are leaving because of money right? Why wouldn’t they stay if you offered them more? But the truth is that money isn’t why people leave jobs. They leave because they feel like there is an opportunity to learn more and to make a bigger difference. The truth is that counter offers are bad for employees, and bad for employers too. The trust is broken. You will never look at one another the same way again. Save your dignity and let them go.

There’s more than one fish in the sea.

This might have been the perfect person, the ideal employee, but no matter how good they were — you can find another one. I know most business owners hate the idea of hiring (hire a new employee, or get a root canal? Root canal any day!) but turnover is a given. People will quit. Get good at recruiting and go find another one (or hire someone who is good at recruiting to help you.)

Who is this an opportunity for?

An open spot is an opportunity for you to review your team. Do you have a younger up-and-comer who is ready for that next step? Try to look at each team member with fresh eyes, like you would if they were applying for this job. Maybe your next star is already on your team.

Don’t burn a bridge.

It’s a small world. Stifle the urge to kick folks on the way out. Sure, they were a jerk to you at last year’s holiday party, and they left you hanging in that client meeting. This is not the time to talk about it. Wish them success. You never know when their new gig might become a potential client, or their future colleague a potential employee.

Losing a key employee is not the best way to start a day (or week, or month), but it’s not the end of the world either. As a business owner, you are going to see employees come and go. You can’t let it throw you for a loop. Instead, take it in stride, find another resource and stay focused on your goals.

Read previous “What Do You Do When …” posts here.


  1. Brad – I like your advice about taking the resignation letter and scheduling time to discuss afterwards. this give you a chance to put your thoughts together and have a meaningful dialog. I also like to discuss with the employee leaving his thoughts on the workplace and any suggestions he might have to improve it. I agree with you that he counter offer don’t usually work. It’s best to let the employee go and assess your remaining team to see who can best fill the vacant shoes. Great article!

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