View from HR: How to craft the right message when an employee departs

Most business leaders struggle to find the right message when an employee leaves. In my opinion, the real concern is less about staff reaction to this particular departure, and more about needlessly inflaming any general fears and concerns.

It is hard to craft the right message because circumstances vary and we want to protect privacy. It is easier when the organization normally operates in a transparent manner and people are ready to interpret the news in a pre-existing context.

Think about the purpose of any post-departure communication. Do you need to send a message at all? What does the company culture expect? Is it consistent with how you handle other people issues? Is it a department, company-wide or team communication? Is it verbal or written?

Ideally, leaders can agree on a message with a departing employee. This happens too rarely: why not provide a mature, sensible, solid contributor the chance to help shape the message? This also reduces conflicting subtexts in emails overnight.

I have seen effective communications and others I wish I could do-over. Here are my lessons learned:

▪ The old adage applies: “Before you worry too much about what someone thinks about you, realize they rarely do.” At the end of the day, most people are focused on their role more than a company message. Yes, people have empathy, but they care more about their own security and possible future treatment. “Is this a good place to work?” is more important than “What happened to Sally?”

▪ Employees know more about each others’ performance, attitude, disengagement and issues than we believe. When an employee is terminated for valid reasons after patient attempts to coach, people know the basics already. Their reaction will vary from relief to mild surprise at the timing, but few will be upset with the action.

▪ Treat fired and resigning employees well (if their behavior allows it) because it is the right thing to do and it is proven to reduce legal claims. Most people want to move on with their lives or the new organization. Still, treating someone well with the expectation they will return the favor often disappoints.

▪ There are times more information is needed than the usual neutral message. “Join me in wishing Sally well in her new role at XYZ Company” might be sufficient. Neutral messages can actually hurt where more is truly needed. People in visible roles for a very short time, well-regarded contributors unable to adapt to new demands, staff making very visible missteps (but terminated for a combination of reasons) and such. The question is whether more information will provide a context difficult to see otherwise ... especially if the departure will stoke those fear fires.

Finally, it might feel good for a moment, but there is never a good time to exaggerate the circumstances of a departure and rarely a reason to tell all the facts. Business leaders are held to a higher standard of behavior than the former employee. It goes with the territory.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 North Carolina employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit