Employers have a lot to gain from letting you openly look for a new job

Another dentist appointment, Tom?
Another dentist appointment, Tom?
Image: REUTERS/Eddie Keogh
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Think back to the last time you were interviewing for a new job while employed somewhere else. Remember how it felt to carry that secret around with you, having to lie to your boss and co-workers, about phony appointments, and doing lunch-time phone interviews in your car? It probably didn’t feel great, but that’s just how it works, right?

Maybe. But it’s definitely not how it should work.

I’ve been managing people and culture in high-growth companies for years, including at firms that celebrate values such as transparency and growth. But even in these progressive cultures, employees were still very secretive when they were ready to move on. For a long time, I accepted that this was inevitable, that a job search had to be a clandestine affair conducted behind a shroud of fake dentist appointments. But after my most recent job search landed me at a digital product agency, I began to reject this way of thinking. The phrase “that’s the way we’ve always done things” is poison in an innovative environment. Why was I so ready to accept that this aspect of work couldn’t change for the better?

When I joined O3 World in 2018, one of the first things my CEO and I talked about was the idea of steering employees to a “graceful” exit when the time came. Having just gone through my own lengthy and secretive job search, it was refreshing to hear a company leader so receptive to helping people leave the company. In fact, the firm has helped several employees over the years to move on, in an open and transparent way. It’s become a crucial element to building a strong team. Our first-ever employee (who now works at Google, no big deal) continues to support the company and recently flew across the country to attend a conference we hosted. A few years ago, our director of engineering left to join a new company, and it’s now a client.

Once we realized the firm had already started building this into the fabric of the culture, we got really excited about the idea of de-stigmatizing career movement. Could we formalize this into an official program? What might it look like if the company committed to actively help employees to find their next job opportunity?

We decided we were going to try.

Transparency makes good business sense

If the idea of helping your best people leave sounds counterintuitive and maybe a little wacky, I get it. Or at least I used to. But after years of conducting exit interviews, I arrived at an important conclusion: If we knew what was driving our people to explore new opportunities in the first place, before they ever signed an offer letter from a new employer, we could have tried to offer a solution that worked for them.

I’m not suggesting employers go to illogical lengths to keep people happy. You probably can’t offer a raise to every employee seeking a better salary. Your company policies might limit your ability to provide additional schedule flexibility. And you won’t always have an open role on the team they want to move over to. But in the cases where you can’t offer a valued employee a reasonable solution, why wouldn’t you help them find what they’re looking for somewhere else?

In the past two years, we’ve assisted with two graceful exits from my firm. Both employees offered extremely positive feedback about the experience. One said he received such an outpouring of support from the entire team that he ended up with more job leads than he could realistically follow up with. The other was appreciative of the opportunity to openly keep his eye on the job market for eight months before finding and landing his next dream position. Both received ample time out of the office for job interviews, as well as glowing references from their supervisors and teammates.

Knowing that they were actively searching for their next career move afforded us more than enough time to plan projects and staffing, whereas the traditional “two week notice” timeframe is barely enough time to post a job advert and collect resumes. Considering that the Society for Human Resource Management estimates it can take an average of eight months for new employees to reach acceptable levels of productivity, the more of a heads-up you have, the better off you’ll be.

Actions eat policies for breakfast

In order to build trust with our team and encourage more people to be open about their career goals and aspirations, we knew we had to do more than just roll out a new policy. We had to demonstrate this new philosophy through our actions. At our company, that means anyone on a graceful exit plan is still eligible for every benefit, perk, and opportunity that their peers are. Annual performance-based salary increases, year-end bonuses, access to training and development, and even promotions are all still on the table.

This is crucial for a few reasons. First, sometimes people change their minds. The grass is not always greener, and a month or two out on the job market might show them that they have it pretty good where they are. Second, and more importantly, the rest of the team is watching.  They’re observing how people are treated when they’re on their way out. They’re listening to hear how people are talked about after leaving the company. They assume they will be treated and talked about in the same way when they leave.

Despite some success with the program, adoption has been a slow process. We’ve had several people leave the old-fashioned way since implementing our initiative. Not everyone is comfortable with this new, radical approach, and many are carrying around years of baggage from bad experiences at other companies. If you’ve never had the misfortune of working in a place where people were fired on the spot for interviewing elsewhere or even just expressing discontent, you’ve certainly heard horror stories from friends and colleagues.

So… what next?

Creating an open dialogue about career goals and aspirations enables you to plan ahead. Work on building a culture where leaving is expected, celebrated, and talked about often. Find out what your employees are striving for in the next two years, five years, ten years. If they’re chasing goals you know you won’t be able to help them achieve, then you know they’re going to leave at some point to find it. Wouldn’t it be ideal to have regular check-ins about their search and to know what kind of timeline you’re working with? Wouldn’t it be so much easier to train their replacement while they’re still in the role?

If you want to create a graceful exits program within your organization, here are few things to remember.

Train your managers. If managers aren’t reinforcing a graceful exit policy with both their words and their actions, it will fail. They need to build trust with each person on their team in order to create an environment where people feel comfortable being vulnerable and transparent about their career goals.

Educate your people. The team needs to understand that a truly graceful exit requires mutual respect, open communication, and often a little compromise. Every exit is unique, and there is no one-size-fits-all formula to follow.

Be ready for a few bumps in the road. Not every graceful exit is as graceful as you might hope. But if you really believe in the philosophy and want to create cultural change in your organization, you should stick with it. Speak openly about challenges, and get loud about celebrating the little wins along the way.

Remove fear. If you operate in an at-will employment state (and most of us in the US do), your people may be afraid of retaliation. Be overly generous and accommodating with employees on a graceful exit plan by giving them time out of the office for job interviews. Provide references, and give them access to all the same bonus, raise, and promotion opportunities as if they were planning to stay forever.

Remember, you’re a team, not a family. We spend a huge chunk of our time at work, and as a result our co-workers can grow to feel like family. But the reality is, you’re much more similar to a professional sports team than a family. And sometimes on a professional sports team, your best player gets released as a free agent. Don’t take it personally, use it as an opportunity to draft some fresh talent onto your team.

Beth Perkins is people growth manager at O3 World, a digital product agency.