Dear Colleagues,

A key member of your engineering team has just quit. She could range from a senior electrical power engineer with enormous experience. To a plant electrician who knows your marine electrical systems intimately and can troubleshoot a problem in a jiffy. Or a SCADA technician who knows the configuration details and intricacies of all your plants’ control systems. Generally, people leave for a myriad of reasons – more money, boredom with the same work, irritated by the local climate, tired of the small town you are based in and irritations with managers. With engineering professionals, it is often due to the project they are working going off the rails or simply grinding them down with the client’s unreasonable demands or requiring horrendous hours at remote locations (perhaps doing mind numbing work whilst living in poor conditions).

Although, what often puzzles me is that many employees who should leave – simply don’t – often due to inertia and unenthusiasm about taking risks with an unknown new company.

What to do?
Well; first of all one should realize that having a key member of staff leaving is a normal part of managing engineering and technology professionals. There is always an ebb and flow of talent – especially critical talent. The important point to make, is that you have to do your utmost to ensure that the changes you make after the departure of your key staff member actually improve your team with better and more appropriate talent and the team overall benefits from the experience. This can be a delicate and painful experience.

The Stages You Go through
Possibly there are a few stages you will go through on being informed by your star engineering employee that they are bolting for (presumably) greener pastures.

  1. Denial (“After all, I have done for you, I can’t believe you are leaving us”)
  2. Anger (“How can you do this to me at this critical stage of the project; we are going to miss our deadlines – you are critical here”)
  3. Loss (“I think of all the good times we worked together on this project as part of tight team. I am going to miss you enormously”)
  4. Bargain (“How much do we need to pay you extra to stay?”)
  5. Acceptance (“I accept you are leaving and things will change now”)
  6. Building a Positive Outcome (“We need to work out strategies to capitalise on this loss and look to make it a win-win situation”).

Never Bargain
It is always tempting to bargain with an employee who has indicated they want to leave. This is a risky strategy and to be avoided under all circumstances. The departing team member has likely thought out the issues and it is unwise to sway them. If they decide to hang in because you offered them more; they often eventually do leave for other reasons (and you set a precedent for everyone else). Unless, it for some reason, which is easily rectified and nothing to do with their performance and enthusiasm for the actual job such as another manager (or client) harassing and making their life hell. But you will generally tarnish your reputation (esp. with your team) in an unseemingly display of pleading to stay.

On a different note, I would also counsel about taking ex-employees back unless it is for a totally different role and the reasons they originally left are no longer there. Sometimes the employee has to leave for solid personal reasons (divorce/aging parents in another city requiring care/extended maternity leave/severe illness) and they can be welcomed back if they have moved to another level in their career and were outstanding performers.

Strategies for Successful Managers
Successful managers get through the first three stages (Denial, Anger, Loss) quickly; avoid the bargaining stage and focus with all their energies on Acceptance and Building a Positive Outcome to the experience. You can make it a positive experience and result for both your team and the departing employee.

Ensure that your departing employee leaves on a positive note with great memories. Try and maintain the professional relationship as I find it is a small world in engineering. You may find you can win new contracts with the firm she is joining. Or she can become a key supplier.

A few strategies to follow when a key player in your engineering team announces that he is leaving:

  • Assess your existing team – weaknesses and strengths and see how you can improve on the structure by reworking job roles and responsibilities. Identify skills and know-how you need. Teams change over time and you can build the team into a more effective one by finding a replacement who can add value.
  • Conduct a frank exit interview with the departing member to understand the problems and improvements you can effect.
  • Look at ways to improve the work environment if warranted by the exit interview.
  • Review the new job description to ensure it is workable and will add value.
  • Consider existing employees first for the vacant position. With some training, is there an existing person who can step up to the plate to build value into their own career?
  • Recruit and advertise extensively. Consider people outside your organization that you know who could fit the role.
  • Do not take someone on if they are not 100% appropriate for the role (even when you become desperate). Hiring the wrong person can cause enormous damage to your team and your organisation. “When in doubt; do without” and continue recruiting.
  • Ensure you have a warm welcoming experience for the new person you recruit but do not compromise on what you require from them from the “get-go” stage.

Ultimately, although difficult to believe when a key employee leaves; but it can be a very positive experience for your team and your firm. You have to ensure you have a great workable strategy to walk through when this happens though.

As William Shakespeare remarked: Wise men never sit and wail their loss, but cheerily seek how to redress their harms.

Thanks to Gary Perman of the IEEE for an interesting article on this topic.

Yours in engineering learning,

Steve