What to Do When Key Employees Leave Unexpectedly (before things get out of hand)

As I sat opposite the managing director, confidently answering his questions, I knew I had already gotten the job. It felt like anything but an interview – like two old friends decided to have a chat and catch up. I was asked to resume the following week and was super excited about the journey i was about to begin. I was expectant and looking forward to having memorable experiences at my new job.


I would wake up each morning hyped and ready to crush the day at work. I had a pep in my step when I walked through the doors corporately clad and looking sharp in my blazers. It was a great place to work – it was not perfect, but it sure was great.


Fast forward to eight weeks later.  I could barely drag myself out of bed and walked through the office doors with drooped shoulders… I had swapped the blazers with corporate attires but with less pizazz.


What happened? Why the drastic change?


Five members of the senior level management team left each with a few weeks interval. It was a drastic change that nobody saw coming. To make things more disconcerting, most of the members who left did not leave on good terms with the owners of the organization. Different stories kept flying around about why Mr A left and what Mr B did or didn’t do. No one was sure of what to believe or who to believe. Things got worse when the situation was not handled properly. Everyone was left to figure things out for themselves and speculate on what to expect going forward.


A new managing director was soon employed but this did not solve the situation. As a matter of fact it worsened things. The new managing director introduced new policies and directives that put the entire staff into a state of chaos. These policies had adverse effects as staff morale dropped to an all time low. What was once a peaceful, energetic and innovative place to work had so quickly become a ghost of itself.


The best hands were served with additional responsibilities (in a bid to fill the shoes of the senior staff that left) but without a promotion or raise, strict disciplinary measures were put in place which usually resulted in fines and pay cuts and the most energetic staff began to have wan appearances. Everybody had to wear multiple hats as the new managing director attempted to build Rome in a day and prove to the owners that everything was under control.


The idea was to make people so busy with work that their focus will shift from the changes happening around them to the mountain of work piling up before them. Not a very wise strategy, I’ll say, because people had questions that needed answers and no one addressed them. Sometimes what is left unsaid is much worse than what is actually said.


The owners saw the need to have an experienced human resource manager that could handle the situation which began to escalate from a few people leaving to an issue of demotivation. Shortly after, they found a seasoned human resource manager who was able to proffer solutions to the chaotic situation. This story is a rather familiar one as different organizations go through similar issues although with slight variations in their experiences. I will highlight a few of the solutions proffered by the human resource manager below:


1. Communicate the departure company-wide as soon as possible


Don’t let rumors spread. It’s advisable that the person(s) leaving makes the announcement. But in the event this cannot be so, clearly communicate to all concerned that the departure was unwanted, change is unavoidable and management has a solution to make it through the turbulence.

2. Review the situation and decide on the projects to pause until you are back up to full capacity


Some roles will be left empty after a staff leaves as such, responsibilities will likely spread to subordinates or closely related positions. In this instance tasks and projects should be reviewed to decide on what should be given urgent priority.


With reference to the story above, when the human resource manager resumed, he encouraged the affected departments to have meetings to identify what needed to be done over the next 3-6 months whilst management worked on finding replacements. This brought a lot of things into focus and helped relieve the highly overworked staff.

3. Get the word out


Start communicating the new plan to everyone involved, starting from the top down. Order is important. The conversations should be frank but not unnecessarily lengthy. It is necessary to give each affected person the attention they need to allay their fears and reinforce trust in the new plan.

4. Review your staffing requirements


What are your staffing needs for the next 12 to 24 months?

A natural reaction will be to fill the vacant role as quickly as possible but it is advisable to take a step back and holistically assess the company’s needs going forward.


Sometimes you just need to reshuffle responsibilities to others or look for an alternative to getting the work done. Depending on the tasks attached to that particular role, you may not essentially need to hire a replacement.  It is worth looking at your long-term strategy and plans before assuming you need a replacement.


When a team member leaves, it gives management an opportunity to reevaluate a lot of things and make necessary changes to how the organization will run going forward. Careful planning and consideration of the risks involved with the team member leaving are essential to ensure the organization is able to safely carry on after they leave.


Written by Genevieve Craig