It happens all the time when you’re a CEO. Somebody important leaves or is let go, and you worry over the impact upon remaining employees and customers. You worry that the person leaving will begin to unload all the pent–up garbage from the past, perhaps damaging the company and causing customer defections and even employee unrest.
Your worry is real.
It is human nature for those remaining to blame the departed employee for any sort of sins from the past, real or imagined. And it is human nature for the person now free of the company to attempt to explain why the departure – in the most flattering personal terms possible.
But in my experience, many of these ungracious outbursts lead to anger, threats and reprisals – all unhealthy for both the individual and the company.
[Email readers, continue here…] I was able to mute these on both sides in my past life with two simple efforts of outreach. I’d call in the departing employee, even those with the worst violations “for cause,” and offer an unemotional exit interview asking for their thoughts about their experience – no holds barred. Then, I’d remind each that it is more than just possible that someday we’d meet again, perhaps as supplier–customer, customer–supplier, industry resource or friendly competitor. Therefore, we should make a genuine pact: neither of us should give in to temptations to disparage the other no matter what the personal psychic gain. Shaking hands after such a promise sealed the deal, even with those you’d rather never see again. And it worked with great effect. Even today, many years later, former employees who departed during my tenure, find me at trade shows and other industry events, telling me that their experience with us was the best they’d ever had with any employer.
The second thing was just as important. With the person leaving (for whatever reason) in tow, I’d show up in that person’s department, call a quick meeting, and make the same statement about non–disparagement to those present, addressing their natural inclination to later blame as part of the short talk. When warranted, a quick celebration including the department employees sealed the deal.
Then there is the formality of codifying this. Every termination should be accompanied by a termination agreement or release before final payment. It should contain terms of separation, reminder of confidentiality, and a non–disparagement clause. It’s a contractual reminder that can be used if needed. Using the techniques above, I don’t recall ever having to do so. May you be as lucky in your efforts.