An unexpected resignation can be difficult, especially when it involves a well-liked or top-performing employee.

But by focusing on immediate work responsibilities and managing your emotions, you can turn a potentially negative situation into a positive outcome for you, your departing employee and your organization.

Immediate responsibilities

When an employee resigns, your first step is to determine the notice period. Start by consulting with your human resources department, your employee handbook and any applicable employment contracts.

Employees will typically give two weeks of notice, but this period may be negotiable based on individual and organizational needs.

Speak candidly with the departing employee to find a time frame that works for both sides. Options include:

  • Working the typical two-week notice period
  • Extending beyond two weeks
  • Immediate dismissal

The typical two-week notice period

In most industries, it’s common practice for an employee to give two weeks’ notice. However, their workdays and responsibilities may not look the same during this time. Some departing employees continue working full time, while others reduce their hours over the course of their remaining employment.

Use this time to prepare colleagues or a new hire to take over the employee’s duties. Be prepared to adjust needs based on the unique circumstances of the departure. Consider factors such as the employee’s specific duties, the importance of their role and whether a replacement is available before they depart.

The following are potential scenarios for the final two weeks:

  • Ask the employee to prioritize projects, wrap up key tasks and work with potential replacements.
  • Have the employee stop working on their everyday responsibilities and create a how-to guide for their position.
  • Allow the employee to leave the office but ask them to be available to answer questions or help with certain tasks or clients for their remaining time.

Beyond two weeks

Some employees agree to prolong their notice period to finish up important projects or ease the transition. For employees in good standing, take advantage of this offer by asking them to:

  • Review upcoming tasks and projects. They can help prioritize duties and complete their most important responsibilities.
  • Create detailed notes on their position and duties. This can help you update the job description and train a new employee to fill the role.
  • Hire or train a replacement. They know their role better than anyone and can help you find or train a successor.
  • Brainstorm ways to improve processes. This could be done on a job, department or organizational level. It’s a great time for candid feedback that can help you uncover better ways of doing things.

Immediate dismissal

Though an abrupt dismissal isn’t ideal, there can be valid reasons to immediately end the working relationship. Common examples include when the resigning employee:

  • Is experiencing a personal health crisis. If they have (or a family member has) a physical or mental health crisis, they may need to end their employment to deal with it right away.
  • Moves to a competitor. You don’t want an employee in a position to access client or sensitive data to the detriment of your organization.
  • Leaves on a bad note. Sometimes a disgruntled employee goes under the radar until they resign. In this case, the benefits of having them stay will likely be outweighed by the downward pull on morale. If a departing employee is outwardly complaining, their dissatisfaction could spread to their colleagues.
  • Occupies a safety-sensitive or high-impact position. Certain roles require a level of focus that might not be available to a departing employee. For example, you don’t want an employee to be distracted when they oversee quality control, personal safety or high-level strategic initiatives. The potential harm to your people or products should take precedence.

Ask your legal counsel whether local or state laws require you to pay employees for a two-week notice period even when they are immediately dismissed following their resignation. While most states do not, it’s best to be sure.

Even when it’s not legally required, it’s considered a best practice to pay employees for this time. This can help maintain professional relationships, enhance your organizational reputation and encourage current employees to continue giving full notice.

Of course, regardless of how much notice is given, you must pay employees for all time worked to maintain compliance with state and federal wage and hour laws. You also need to follow any applicable laws regarding the timing and delivery of the final paycheck. Consult with counsel as needed.

Emotional response

Work duties typically take top priority when an employee announces their departure. But you don’t have to pretend to be a robot. Resignations can be challenging and even personally hurtful.

Navigating the initial surge of strong reactions can allow you to move forward in the best interests of all parties. The following three tips can help you take stock of your response.

Hit pause

When an employee announces their resignation, pay attention to how you’re feeling. Avoid strong reactions by taking a breath or buying yourself time with neutral statements such as, “Wow. That’s big news. We will definitely miss you.”

It’s acceptable to express sadness or disappointment, especially when it’s combined with a positive comment about wishing them the best in a new opportunity. However, statements of anger or betrayal can have lasting negative effects, according to research in the Harvard Business Review.

If you find yourself clouded by emotion, ask the employee for a moment to gather your thoughts. You can make a statement such as, “Thank you for letting me know. Let me take a few minutes to plan our next steps so we can make the most out of your remaining time.”

Be supportive

A resignation may feel personal, but it’s usually not. Employees most often leave an organization due to a combination of better pay, a new role or industry, more flexibility, a reduced workload or other personal reasons.

Instead of taking offense, show support for their next move. It can enhance your reputation as a leader and an organization. Though the employee may be leaving, they can still influence your company through positive comments and recommendations to their professional network.

Look to the future

Once the employee’s notice period has been finalized, build in time for insightful conversations. Potential questions include:

  • Is there anything we can do to keep you?
  • What could be better about your current role?
  • What did you like best about our team efforts? How could we collaborate more effectively?
  • Do you have any ideas to enhance our culture or client relationships?

Sometimes employees end up changing their minds and deciding to stay. More often, leaving on a good note leaves the door open for a reunion. Even if they leave for good, the departure can be considered a win if it helps you improve processes for your team and organization.

Be prepared

For more information on employee relations, talk with your benefits adviser. They can help you plan your benefits and communications strategies to deal with and prevent employee departures.