How to Talk about Employee Departures

But people still leave. Some want to try other things at other companies, or the fit isn’t right, so we have to let them go. It’s the natural cycle of business.

What’s never been natural at companies, though, is how these departures are handled. So at Basecamp we’ve created a ritual for when someone leaves: We tell everyone in the company why. Not just that person’s team, or his or her immediate co-workers. The entire staff gets the memo.

At many companies, when people walk out the door for the last time, their name is never spoken again. “Hey, what happened to Larry?” “Oh, Larry? We don’t talk about Larry anymore.” The departure remains a mystery. The name becomes unspeakable.

One thing we know about human nature is that when there’s a mystery, people will solve it themselves: They make up the ending, and it’s almost always worse than reality. And that’s the problem–if you don’t tell people why, they’ll make up why. And the wrong why is almost always destructive.

Information vacuums fill with rumors, and rumors lead to anxiety. Was Larry laid off? Are more cuts coming? Am I next? Did Larry have any warning? Or was he just shown the door 10 minutes before the end of the day on Friday? It’s not a healthy scene.

So at Basecamp, when someone leaves–voluntarily or not–we give that person the option of saying goodbye on his or her own terms by sending a message to everyone in the company. It can include anything this person wants it to, and, as long as there are no personal attacks or slights, we approve the posting. Employees often reply with best wishes, while some share pictures and memories.

Then, a few days after this person’s departure, his or her team manager writes a follow-up post that’s also sent out to the whole company. This note provides details that were missing from the personal goodbye. We lay out the reason someone left, or why this person was asked to leave, to ensure there are no big questions hanging over everyone’s head. If someone is let go for conduct (not related to job performance), we say as much, acknowledging that we can’t divulge details. It’s important to be clear and thorough and honest.

This follow-up post is also a place where people can ask for clarification or share their point of view. It’s a cathartic moment designed to put everything on the table and clear the air of concerns anyone might have about why a onetime co-worker is no longer part of the company.

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