Should You Let Your Employee With Another Job Offer Leave?


Employees are getting ready to jump to new jobs. What if you’re the one they’re leaving behind?

Just over a quarter of workers plan to look for a role with a different employer once the threat of the pandemic dissipates, according to a March survey of 2,000 workers by insurer Prudential. Managers will be left to deal with the aftermath. If one of your reports approaches you with a rival offer or news they’re on the way out, do you fight to keep them? And what might persuade them to stay?

Many workers spent 2020 feeling frozen in place. With everything from child care to health tainted by uncertainty, it seemed prudent to stay put if you were lucky enough to have a stable job.

“Most people have just tolerated things that aren’t perfect,” Ravi Raman, an executive coach in Minneapolis, says of his clients. “There’s a lot of pressure getting built up in the system.”

Employees are now ready to leave behind the usual culprits: bad bosses, untenable workloads, skimpy paychecks. But managers also must contend with new desires and priorities sparked by the pandemic. In the Prudential survey, 42% percent of workers currently working remotely said if their employer didn’t make the option permanent, they’d find one that did.

Respondents poised for a job hunt said the top things that would keep them with their current employer, aside from a boost in salary, were flexible work schedules, opportunities to climb in their company and remote-work options.

But before you start doling out perks and counteroffers, remember that attrition isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes a departure is a chance to swap someone even better into the role or let your former teammate take their career in a new direction.

Evaluate, honestly, the impact the employee is making. There are the obvious metrics: sales numbers, the ROI on marketing campaigns. But consider, too, the indirect ripples that might be less quantifiable. Do key people in the company gravitate toward them? Do they have communication skills that are crucial in this new way of working, like the ability to listen deeply and forge relationships through a screen?

“There are some people who are the connective tissue of the organization,” Mr. Raman says. “They help other people be better.”

Think about the person’s trajectory. Are their skills steady but stagnant, or are they consistently making a bigger impact?

“Whenever I’ve fought to keep people, it’s where they have potential,” says Mr. Raman, who worked for Microsoft for nearly 14 years. It’s like “getting a stock at a value.”

How you respond to one employee can have consequences for your whole team. Are you setting a precedent around how the company responds to outside offers? Will other employees feel irritated that they’re not getting a new title, better projects, or whatever you’re handing their colleague?

Lopsided levels of status in a group can lead to a lack of cohesion or even conflict down the line. In a working paper, Adam Galinsky, a business professor at Columbia University, and colleagues examined rock bands over a 15 year period. They found that bands that had one star with far more status than the other members tended to perform better at first. But over time, resentment builds, and “they’re actually more likely to break up,” says Dr. Galinsky, co-author of “Friend & Foe,” a book about cooperation and competition at work.

“It was like, ‘Oh wow. This is a blow,’ ” Mr. Sheppard recalls. “ ‘It’s going to be hard to go find somebody. I don’t want to put the time in.’ ”Sometimes the answer is letting a top person go. While running a sustainable building materials startup years ago, James Sheppard’s marketing employee came to him with an offer in hand to head to a big tech company, for twice as much.

But the startup couldn’t compete on pay, and the employee had recently become the sole breadwinner for his family. Mr. Sheppard told the worker the transition sounded like the right move and wished him well. A decade later, Mr. Sheppard was able to woo him back to his current startup, home-management app Centriq Technology, even though the company hadn’t yet raised capital and couldn’t pay a cash salary at first.

“This is when relationships matter,” says Mr. Sheppard, who’s based in the Bay Area. “It is the long game, especially in a world where people don’t stay in their jobs for a lifetime.”

Of course, in the moment, it can feel like a gut punch.

“It’s a very human instinct to feel like it’s personal. ‘They’re leaving me,’ ” says Ify Walker, the CEO of New Orleans-based Offor, an executive recruiting and talent consulting firm. Even if you’re emotionally reeling, offer congratulations.

Then, play detective.

“What is this telling you?” Ms. Walker asks. “Who’s making it here? Who’s leaving?” Do people of color not feel like they have a path up in the organization? Are parents not getting the flexibility they need to make their careers work?

Get ahead of the problem by fixing broken processes, like promotion tracks, and consistently checking in with workers about what they need to be successful and satisfied in their jobs.

“If you do things right, that conversation should rarely come up as a surprise,” Rick Rudman, the CEO of Potomac, Md.-based home-improvement platform Curbio, says of talk of a rival offer.

When it comes to navigating workers’ career paths, he tries to invoke a management lesson he learned years ago in the Air Force. There, career development advisers would frequently ask servicemen and women if they planned to re-enlist or if they had big goals outside the military. When Mr. Rudman declared he was planning to move on to civilian life, his bosses spent their time focusing on recruiting his replacement, and he focused on work for his remaining year without a secret exit strategy weighing on him.

“Every company should do that,” Mr. Rudman says, “but it takes trust.”

Navigating the Rival Offer

Advice on whether—and how—to keep an employee who’s weighing a move:

If your company is sticking to remote or hybrid work, consider whether the person has skills suited to that world. CEO James Sheppard says he values self-directed workers who can function autonomously but also aren’t too timid to reach out for help when they need it.

Talk through the opportunity like a coach, talent adviser Ify Walker says. Ask employees why the new job might make sense, and what their fears are. You’ll build trust. Maybe they’ll reveal a concern you can fix.

Get creative when it comes to incentives to stay. In addition to offering someone the chance to work remotely, give them the resources to do it—like a stipend for a co-working space, Mr. Sheppard says.

If you lose someone, frame it carefully to the rest of your team. Specify that you value other colleagues and want to maintain equality among team members, professor Adam Galinsky says. “Any time people are watching an event they’re making assumptions,” he says. “Intervene and control the narrative.”

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