Why former employees can be our best advocates

Happy Workplaces

As we’ve written before, how your organisation is perceived has a direct impact on your ability to attract and retain the right talent. As a leader of people, you are developing your company’s brand as much as the Head of Marketing. For better or worse, you’re responsible for creating the culture that your people will shout about, even after they’ve left.

And with increasing numbers happy to vent across social media, how a person leaves is something we all need to be thinking about, especially with ‘86% of people saying they would not apply to or continue working for a company that has a bad reputation with former employees.’[i]

When it comes to the employee lifecycle, a lot has been written about induction and the way we retain, develop, motivate and engage our people, but not so much on what to do when they want to leave. However, with organisations like Glassdoor and Indeed making the workplace increasingly transparent, how we say goodbye needs some serious thought, too.


Generally speaking, we aren’t very comfortable thinking about someone choosing to leave our organisation. Whilst we are right to stay alert to the reasons behind any exit (for example, we know that most employees leave a manager and not a company), increasingly, we need to allow for the fact that employees leave simply because it’s the only way they can continue to develop their careers.

There’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that one of the top reasons for leaving is a lack of opportunity.[ii] Maybe a person has outgrown their role and they no longer feel engaged and fulfilled, but you don’t have a new challenge for them to move into. It doesn’t help that the people who are looking to move on at this point are often your best people. And, no doubt about it, when they announce their intention to do it, it can smart sometimes.

Treat people well

It happens! And in an employees’ market, we need to get better at handling it if we are to protect our reputations. Whether it’s welcoming them onboard or saying goodbye, we need to treat people well. But how much time and attention do we really give to a person who is leaving?

Exit surveys don’t really cut it. Sure, they have their place, but it feels rather like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. If you haven’t checked in with someone prior to them leaving, any exit interview will feel like a reactive box-ticking exercise, at best. And what do you do with the results? Do we truly listen to the feedback and act upon it?

Why do people stay in an organisation?

We need to start listening much earlier. Perhaps a more pertinent question is to ask why people stay. Do you understand what motivates your people, and what’s important to them (remembering that this is reflective of a moment in time and can – should – shift)? How do you stay alert to this as an organisation? If you don’t know what you do well to engage your people – why it is people do want to work for you – how will you ever build on it and replicate it?

Amazon affiliate Zappos annually offer their employees up to $5000 to leave. Crazy!? Well, maybe not. They believe that this gives their employees the opportunity to re-engage with the reasons they joined the company in the first place, to take some time to consciously consider whether it is still right for them. This action supports the notion of an adult-to-adult culture, trusting employees to make the right decision for them. This may be an extreme example, but the flipside is not everyone stays in their job because they love it. People can feel trapped financially or simply don’t want the hassle of starting again somewhere else. The fact that they choose to stay doesn’t necessarily mean they are engaged.

As we’ve said, in a digital world, employees can be your best advocates or greatest detractors. This should never just be about positive or negative reviews, however. Why wouldn’t you (genuinely) want to know how your approaches are landing? This is about proactively fostering an authentic culture of engagement and empowerment.

Leaving well, even when it’s not (initially) a positive choice

There is a tendency to expect employees to be disengaged through a change process that results in redundancies, for example. This isn’t necessarily the case. I have worked in organisations where these individuals were in fact more engaged than their colleagues who were ‘safe’ in their roles. This is because the process was managed well. Employees were treated as adults. They felt listened to, that their opinions mattered, and conversations were deemed to be open and honest. The very fact that levels of communication were increased meant that people felt positive about the future and felt they were treated with a level of respect. They understood the reasons for the change and felt able to leave with their heads held high. How often can we say that in a redundancy situation?

What kind of employer are you?

What do you want your organisation to be known for? Do you truly live and breathe your values? Do the actions you take align with the behaviours you desire? Conscious or unconscious, what we do affects the way people feel and, ultimately, the results we get.

Not everyone is meant to stay forever – just like not everyone who works for you will be a future leader. Organisations need a mix. This is how they create diversity and growth. We need to become employers who both welcome people who want to build a lifelong career with us, and those for whom we will be a stepping stone. A progressive organisation will create an environment where the latter can contribute their best and then wish them all the best when it’s time to move on. As such, they will enhance their reputation as a positive, forward-thinking and supportive employer.


You spend a lot of money recruiting and developing the best people for your business – creative people who know their own minds. If they decide that it’s the right time to move on, then respect that decision and ensure they hold as positive an impression of your organisation when they walk out of the door as when they first walked through it. After all, you can’t decide when you want them to exercise that ability to think for themselves.

It is the nature of driven, high-performing individuals to invest in themselves and continually strive for improvement. This may mean, that at some point, they will choose to leave. We need to focus on celebrating what they’ve contributed whilst they were with us, however long or short that time period was. ‘Loyalty’ doesn’t necessarily reflect quality. And there is such a thing as turnover that is too low. Complacency is harmful and can stifle growth. None of us can afford to rest on our laurels – neither as organisations nor as individuals.

The art of letting go

We have to be prepared to let talent go – whether that’s to a different part of the business or to another organisation. But ensure it’s for the right reasons, not because they have become disillusioned with an organisation that is not engaging and empowering them. Be an organisation that fosters talent but be prepared to lose some of it along the way.

As David Marquet, author of Turn the Ship Around, suggests: “[Leadership is] communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.” The knock-on effect of this means being prepared to give up some control over what may happen as a result.

We have a responsibility to our people. We need to think seriously about what it means to invest in them. Alex Turnbull, founder and CEO of Groove, argues: “Your employees join your team because they trust you to support them in their careers. You need to deliver on that trust, whether they’re working for you or moving on to something else.”[iii]

In HR Disrupted, Lucy Adams talks about induction and the need to consider how you want people to feel when they join an organisation (rather than just focusing on what you want them to know). This is equally as relevant when they leave. You never know when your paths may cross again. They might want to come back once they have had the chance to broaden their experience and acquire new skills. Their new organisation may even become a new client. It is always wise to leave the door open.

The Takeaway

How your employees feel about your organisation will reflect on how they talk about it. So, what do you stand for? Actions speak louder than words, so stay true to this at EVERY stage of the employee journey. What you do when an employee leaves is just as important as when they join. It could be the difference between them being your best advocate and your greatest detractor. But it’s not all about reviews on Glassdoor. This is about creating an authentic culture, one where people feel engaged and empowered and in which they want to give their best.

Such a culture will keep churn to a minimum. That’s not to say that, at some point, some of your best people won’t leave. It’s how you handle it that’s important. And remember, it’s a small world out there. Goodbye doesn’t necessarily mean forever.

If you liked this,  you might like: Creating a happy workplace – Where to start

[i] Randstad, your best employees are leaving. but is it personal or practical? Press Release, August 2018 https://rlc.randstadusa.com/press-room/press-releases/your-best-employees-are-leaving-but-is-it-personal-or-practical

[ii] Allana Akhtar, Bosses take note: Workers say lack of engagement is a top reason they’d quit their jobs, Business Insider, June 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/the-main-reason-an-employee-would-quit-a-job-2019-6?r=US&IR=T

[iii] Alex Turnbull, Your Best Employees Will Quit. Here’s What to do About it. Blog post, https://www.groovehq.com/blog/what-to-do-when-employees-quit