How to know when an employee wants out (and what not to do)
Few employees stay with the same organisation for their whole working life. And there’s certainly a case for saying that a certain turnover of staff is beneficial, as it brings in new ideas, and prevents an organisation getting set in its ways.

But if staff resignations are a fact of life, what are the signs that it’s about to happen? And how can managers best deal with it? 

Part of a process

For Chris Steinfort, director and founder of HR consultancy hr4impact, understanding why employees resign needs to be understood as part of the wider lifecycle, of why they join and why they stay.

“People have choices, and we should never take their choices for granted,” he says.

“When someone makes a decision to join an organisation, find out what their expectations are, and seek to match these with business expectations. A good match will mean a good relationship, and a bad match will make for a bad relationship.”

The warning signs

“One I’ve seen a lot is someone who often picks up their mobile, and then walks out of the building,” says Catherine Cahill, principal consultant at Worksense Solutions. “It can be a sign they’re speaking to another employer, and they often pace up and down while they’re doing it!”

For Steinfort, the warning signs include frustration and dissatisfaction with getting things done – often regarding things that are always a challenge, such as the performance of a company’s IT systems.

“If someone becomes focussed on the dissatisfactions, and they become overwhelming, then they lose sight of the reasons they wanted to do the job in the first place,” he says.

In sickness and in health

For Cahill, an employee taking more sick days than normal, is a frequent indicator that their stay within the organisation could be coming to an end. ”Or they could just be sick, so this is a good opportunity to discuss what’s going on,” she says. “Taking a lot of single day’s sick leave can be indicative of a lack of motivation, or they could be using up sick leave before quitting.”

Cahill recently encountered a relatively new employee in his twenties (whose manager’s manager thought he was great), who was taking frequent single sick days. “I talked with him, and discovered a toxic work situation, especially his manager’s inappropriate behavior, which the manager’s manager was completely unaware of.”

The fateful day

For Steinfort, a good approach for managers to take when someone resigns is this: “Be calm, take a deep breath, thank them, wish them the best, and then think of all the stakeholders. Make a plan to manage the transition, including timing, communication, handover, possible acting up, and potentially a recruitment process.”

Cahill reminds us that employees often leave for positive reasons, such as career development.

“We should wish someone well when they’re going to a competitor, and we should be generous with people doing this,” she says. “You want them to say good things about you in their next job; you want people in their next company to want to work with you”

“But if they’re leaving because they’re angry, or exhibiting disruptive behavior, you can’t always afford to be generous. You need to say, this clearly isn’t working out, and I think it’s better if you leave today.”

“My number one goal here is for them to keep their dignity intact. There should be no walk of shame through this office with a box full of belongings.”


For Steinfort, commencing recruitment immediately to replace a leaver can often be a mistake. “A leaver creates opportunities to do things differently, to reassess. And after someone leaves, it’s important to acknowledge and appreciate anyone taking on extra functions.”

Also, managers should be aware that someone leaving can be a trigger for other people leaving, as it makes them question what they’re doing. “That’s why it’s so important to communicate openly with other people in the team,” he says.

Call or raise

Neither Cahill nor Steinfort place much faith in making counter offers to encourage an employee to stay.

“If they’ve already made the psychological decision to leave, then my general advice is to accept and respect that, and don’t try to talk them out of it,” says Steinfort. “If money was the problem, you should have fixed it earlier.”

“If a person resigns because of more money, I don’t do a counter offer,” says Cahill. “I’ve been overruled on this in the past– only to see the person leave six months later anyway.”

“But if a person says, ‘I love working here, but I’ve been offered x thousand more….’, then a counter offer may work. But you should gauge if it’s genuine, or just a negotiating tool. You can’t simply give the best negotiators the most money – because then the quiet achievers will become disgruntled, and quietly leave.”