For a partner in an accounting firm, there is nothing more frustrating than when a good employee presents his resignation letter. Not only is losing a good employee bad for business, it’s also hard not to take the resignation personally, especially for small accounting firms with few employees. How will the firm replace him? How will his clients take the news? What if he takes some clients with him?
None of this is fun for the partner, and the circumstances can often seem out of the firm’s control. The firm has spent time and money cultivating this person, only to see him leave for someplace else. Where is the loyalty? Where is the gratitude?
Understanding Why Employees Leave
It is important for firm leadership to reflect on the reasons a team member gives for leaving, especially if the firm is constantly losing good people. This is often a reflection on the firm’s culture, something that might need some real and meaningful work to improve.
But the truth is that people can leave for good reasons that are beyond the firm’s control. In this author’s firm, an employee recently left after six months. He was a 10-year CPA and a great team member, but after joining the firm he decided to try going out on his own, not wanting to look back someday and regret not taking the chance. The firm tried to convince him to stay, but ultimately, he needed to go for his own good. Instead of trying to fight it or worry about him stealing clients, the partners decided it was best to let him leave on his terms. It is important for employees to understand that the firm cares about them and their future, whether with the firm or not.
There was concern about the possibility the employee would take some clients with him. The firm has a standard one-year noncompete agreement for clients, but what if a client really enjoyed working with him? After some reflection, the conclusion was that if the client is happier going someplace else, why stop them? It’s a reflection on the firm’s culture that team members build these relationships with clients, and some clients are going to want to stay with the person they have gotten used to. Will most of them leave? Likely not, because the firm has built a strong brand. In the long run, if clients are happy it reflects better on the brand, whether they are still clients or not.
The next concern was transferring his workload to others in the office. An exiting employee, especially a good one, is probably managing a sizable workload. To split those clients among other employees can be tricky. It is important to have a great task management system so that assigning and unassigning tasks is easy to do, especially when someone leaves (or is sick). It’s also important to make sure that the person leaving has time to explain to the team what he was working on and what was special about each client.
Many firms make the mistake of immediately kicking an exiting employee out the door. This is an impulsive decision that shows the person leaving, as well as the whole team, that the firm doesn’t care about employees on a personal level and is scared of losing business. In reality, the person leaving has already contacted all of the clients and told them what is happening. Kicking him out the door not only sets a poor example for future departures—it also prevents the firm from retaining his knowledge of those clients that stay.
The author’s firm told the person leaving that he could stay for as long as he needed to finish his current work and pass it along to others; this ended up being about 2½ weeks. He was able to show others his biggest clients and explain to those clients what was happening. It was a win-win for both sides.
The other concern was more personal. The partners felt dismayed that a new hire was leaving after only six months, a first for the author’s firm. After the initial emotional roller coaster, however, the partners came the realization that it was no one’s fault. The employee was leaving because it was something he needed to do for his career, and the right thing to do was to support that. In this situation, the partners’ job was to back off and give him space, let him say his goodbyes, announce it to the team as he wanted to, and ultimately let him leave the way he wanted. This author also wanted to provide him some support with starting his new firm, whether it was advice on how to build a website or what vendors to use. Yes, he’s going to be a competitor, but competition is a good thing; it motivates firms to up their game.
Why is all of this the right thing to do? Because it’s also important to leave the door open for good team members to return. Sometimes people need to see that the grass is not always greener on the other side. Over the past 30 years, four employees have left the author’s firm and returned, and this is a small firm that has only around 40 total employees. If a team member returns, not only can they bring helpful knowledge from outside the firm, but they are also likely to never leave again because they appreciate what makes the firm special.
The next time a good person leaves, follow the Golden Rule: treat them the way you would want to be treated. After all, they did contribute to the firm’s success. Every business situation has a silver lining. Make the most out of a good team member leaving, and there may be rewards to reap further down the road.