The 8 Step-by-step Process for Offboarding Employees Gracefully

I dread offboarding.

I don’t know any manager that enjoys this process.

Sure, sometimes the employee moves on to bigger and better opportunities. I’m thrilled for them but it is very bittersweet. I always hate seeing them go.

Or the employee is being forced out. No matter the circumstances, it’s always heart-wrenching.

I’ve found that employees react in a few ways once they’re asked to leave:

Understanding
Sometimes folks have been through layoffs before or they knew they weren’t performing and expected to get fired sooner or later. I’ve also had a few folks that were extremely empathetic and mature. They even made an attempt to assure me during the process that everything was going to be okay.

Sadness
These folks are immediately crestfallen. Usually, they had no idea the change was coming and are completely shocked. Once they hear the news, they respond with sadness. Sometimes they express that sadness immediately, sometimes they bottle it up and quietly go through the rest of the process. My heart always goes out to these folks.

Anger
Luckily, folks fall into this category less frequently than the others. But they’re out there. They can surprise you too, it’s not always who you think it will be. The anger can manifest by arguing the decision or by threatening and responding with lawsuits after the exit. Always make sure you’ve done everything properly just in case they react like this.

Regardless of how the employee reacts to the news, your offboarding process has a huge impact on how smoothly it goes for everyone.

If done poorly, offboarding can feel like a hatchet chopping through the organization. You’ll be drained, the employee will feel betrayed, and the rest of the team will be shocked and distrustful for awhile.

Offboarding Complexities

When the exit is the employee’s choice and they’re resigning, my overall philosophy is to be a bit looser with my offboarding process. In other words, I’ll customize it more to the exact circumstances of the employee.

These are some of the nuances that I modify my standard step-by-step process around:

How senior is the employee?

As a general rule, the more senior the employee, the longer I try to extend offboarding. If the employee is a c-suite executive, it can easily take several months to completely transition everything.

For a mid-level manager or employee in a critical role, I may ask if the employee is willing to stay on for 3-4 weeks to give enough time for the transition.

Granted, this is completely up to the employee wanting and able to stay for the duration.

For most junior employees, the standard 2 weeks is more than enough to get everything transitioned.

How easy is it to transfer the employee’s workload?

Some roles are incredibly specialized and complex. No matter what you do, it could take 3-4 weeks to transfer everything over to someone else. If that’s the case, I’ll ask the employee if they’re open to staying on for 3-4 weeks to help with the transition.

That said, I try not to put myself in this position in the first place. These days, I build teams and roles in a way that when anyone on the team leaves, it’s fairly straightforward to transition their responsibilities to someone else. If you’re constantly fighting fires during turnover, it’s a sign that roles have been over-scoped or over-specialized in your organization.

How quickly does the employee want to leave?

Most often, an employee already has another job lined up once they notify you that they’ll be leaving. So they’ve already committed to another start date elsewhere. This is usually the main constraint that everything else is forced to match.

Even without a hard exit date from the employee, some folks simply want to leave earlier. They may feel guilty or sad about leaving. So the sooner that everyone can move on, the better. I always ask the employee if they have any preferences on when they’d like to leave once they’ve given me notice.

Does the employee have a preference for notifying the rest of the team?

Employees have completely different preferences on when they’d like the news to break. Some folks want to tell everyone right away even if they’re planning on staying around for a few weeks. This gives them a chance to say heartfelt goodbyes to everyone, wrap up projects, and move forward.

Other folks are the exact opposite, they want to hold off on telling anyone else until right before they leave. They prefer the “rip-the-bandaid-off” approach and want to do everything right at the end.

Unless the person has a senior role that needs a lot of coordination during their exit, I almost always adhere to their preferences for breaking the news.

Step-by-step Process for Offboarding Employees

8 Steps to Offboarding

Once it’s time to offboard an employee, I follow these steps:

Step 1: Get the resignation in writing

Some folks will give their announcement verbally. I dread the ad-hoc 1:1 that’s mysteriously scheduled the same day without any reason given for the meeting. More often than not, the employee is about to give their resignation.

Regardless of how the resignation is first communicated, your first step is to get the resignation in writing. The odds of something crazy happening are low but you do want everything documented just in case. Have them confirm the resignation and their last day.

Step 2: Confirm exit dates with your manager and HR

Once the confirmation is in writing, notify your own manager and the HR team immediately. They’ll all have processes that they need to kick off in order to get prepared for the coming changes.

Step 3: Schedule the last payroll

This is typically handled by HR, they’ll be able to make all the required changes in your payroll system.

If you’re handling this, make sure this gets sorted out and double check to make sure it’s correct. The last thing anyone wants is a disagreement or mishap with the final paycheck.

Keep in mind that states have different regulations on how to handle the final payroll. In some instances, it actually needs to be delivered by check on the employee’s last day. Your payroll vendor should be able to give you all the requirements that you have to follow.

Step 4: Transition work and shift priorities

In some cases, this is pretty easy. In others, it’s easily the most difficult step of the whole process.

It’ll depend on how senior and specialized the employee’s role is.

For a standard individual contributor, simply go through their current projects, asses what’s high-priority, then shuffle those projects into the work queues of other folks in similar roles. The main thing to watch out for is not to dump a ton of extra work on the rest of the team. If something’s critical, the team can stretch for a short period. Then you want to get back to normal workloads as soon as possible.

Team managers and executives are never as simple. Here are a few of the tactics that I’ve learned over the years:

  • Ideally, they’ve given you enough notice on the resignation that you can get through a recruitment round and have that person’s replacement lined up shortly after their exit date. While this is ideal, I’ve found that it rarely works out like this in practice. Either the resignation period doesn’t give enough time or recruitment takes longer than expected.
  • Look for an “interim” manager internally to fill the role in the short term while you look for the long-term replacement. The interim manager can be the most senior person on that team, an executive that’s strong enough to double-up on teams for a period, or a lateral manager that has some extra bandwidth. This is the card that I play most often in these scenarios.
  • Bring the departing employee on as a contractor to wrap up any critical projects or help with the transition if you need some extra time. The employee needs to be open to this and their rate needs to be reasonable but it can give you extra flexibility during the transition.
  • Only promote someone into the open role if you’re highly confident that they can assume the role. Promoting the strongest person on that team into the new manager’s role seems like a logical step. But most folks aren’t ready for the promotion and quickly find themselves underwater. That causes a host of problems later on: performance across the team suffers, no one handles de-motions gracefully, and you have to recruit all over again. If I’m not completely positive that the person can stretch into the new role, I’ll assign them the “interim” role and give them a 3 month period to find their feet. Then I make the call to recruit externally or give them the official promotion based on their performance.

In some cases, the role was so specialized that your only move is to shut down that person’s entire program once they leave. I’ve had to do this a handful of times myself and I always consider it a failure of mine. If my only option is to shut down the program because it would take too much time to rebuild the program from scratch, that means I didn’t add enough structure, process, and support to the program so that it could survive turnover.

Step 5: Announce the departure

My standard preference is to announce the employee’s departure in this order:

  1. About a week and a half before their exit, I’ll tell the 2-3 key folks that absolutely need to know about the departure. These are typically people that will be impacted in a major way. I also ask them to keep the news confidential until I can let others know.
  2. A week before the departure, I break the news to that person’s immediate team.
  3. Right after that, I make the announcement to the broader team that the person is part of. If you have a smaller company, this could be everyone. For larger companies, it could be the function or department.

Like I noted above, this is one of the steps that I’ll readily customize based on the preferences of the individual that’s leaving.

Before breaking the news to anyone, I always check with the departing employee and ask them if there’s a way that they want me to frame the news. Sometimes, people are happy to share that they’re joining another company or starting a new project. In other cases, they prefer to keep all the details to themselves. I always comply with the employee’s wishes on framing.

If they prefer to keep things private, I’ll explain during the announcement that the employee is moving on to bigger and better things, we’re really happy for them, and we wish them the best of luck. If anyone asks why that person is leaving, I’ll say there’s nothing else that I have to share on the subject.

Step 6: Hold an exit interview

On a lot of teams, the exit interview becomes a tedious and “check-the-box” activity.

For me, it’s possibly the most critical part of the entire offboarding process.

Ultimately, my goal is to diagnose the reasons why the employee is leaving, just like a post-mortem after a project. There are a few questions that I’m focused on answering:

  • What could I have done differently as a manager in order to keep the employee?
  • Are there processes or systems that encouraged the employee to look elsewhere?
  • Did we give the employee a genuine path to growth and enough support?
  • Did we make a mistake during the initial recruitment?
  • Are their rifts developing within the organization that I should know about?

Recruitment is an enormous expense for any organization and I take turnover as a serious failure of management. The better I can understand the root causes for why someone is leaving, the more likely I am to make real improvements to the business that reduce turnover in the future.

I don’t dive straight into these items when the employee gives their resignation. The news is too raw at that point. I’ve found that by taking some time and doing the exit interview a few days later, I can accept the resignation myself and be more impartial when getting to the root cause.

In larger companies, HR departments will often handle this task. Even in smaller ones I highly recommend doing exit interviews.

Step 7: Send a farewell announcement on the last day

On the last day for the employee, I send one more farewell announcement. The news has already been announced via email or during team meetings so I usually pick a more informal medium for this one. It’s more of a reminder to everyone and a chance for the team to say goodbye. Doing the farewell announcement on Slack works well in my experience.

I thank the employee for everything that they’ve done and wish them the best of luck going forward. The rest of the team typically adds their farewells and goodbyes too.

Step 8: Shut down account access and collect equipment

On the last day, make sure all the employee’s accounts are shut down so that there aren’t any security vulnerabilities later. In particular, contact your G Suite Admin to get their email accounts shut down and their email forwarded to the right person.

Most often, everything gets shut down at 5 pm in your timezone. If you’re remote, either use the standard timezone that most of the company follows or use the employee’s timezone.

Remember to collect all the company equipment that the employee may have.

What if employees aren’t leaving voluntarily?

In the case of lay-offs or letting an employee go for performance reasons, the core offboarding steps are the same. There are a few key differences though.

Timing can be severely condensed

If the employee is being fired under egregious circumstances, the entire offboarding process could get completed within a day. This doesn’t happen often but it can happen.

Even if the employee has gone through a performance plan and the firing has been a long time coming, the final offboarding steps can all happen quickly. Notifying the employee that they’re being let go, transitioning work, making announcements, and handling everything else is typically all done on a single day.

If the employee is being fired for performance, document everything

When employees resign, the only document that you need is the resignation and exit date.

But when employees aren’t leaving voluntarily, you want to document everything much more carefully. Document when you held meetings to set expectations, make notes of those calls, follow up with a summary of those meetings by email afterward, collect documents for job responsibilities, make performance plans and document the following performance during those plans, and anything else that you can think of. Document absolutely everything. In the event a lawsuit does occur, you’ll be in a much better position. Of course, run all your processes by HR and your legal counsel to make sure you’re doing everything that you need to.

Announcements get cut or reduced

Especially if it’s a performance issue, details should not be shared and there’s no way to make an announcement before the employee is let go. You want to give them every chance to meet the responsibilities of their role and stay on. Then once the employee has been let go, give very few details. Simply tell everyone that the employee is moving on, will no longer be with the company as of a given date, and that you wish the employee the best of luck.

For layoffs, there are a few ways to handle the announcements. Some Operations and HR folks prefer to hold off on announcements until the same day as layoffs. This prevents rumors flying around or adding anxiety to the team for an extended duration. Other teams will prefer to give everyone a few weeks notice so that they have a chance to finish work and transition anything.

While layoffs might not give as much notice before the event, there’s usually a lot more communication to the rest of the team after the event. The team needs to heal, come together, and re-orient around a new goal. It typically takes quite a few all-hands meetings in order to get everyone aligned again.