Managing People

How to Handle Losing a High Performer

May 26, 2020
November 7, 2023
Michelle Villegas Threadgould
Lattice Team

Every workplace has high-performing employees who thrive at what they do and put in the extra effort to make their work shine. High performers are a huge asset to any company — in fact, they can even be 400% more productive than their peers. But when a high-performing employee leaves your organization, your company doesn’t just suffer a loss in productivity. High performers are also known to be excellent communicators who provide actionable feedback to their managers and motivate their teams.

When a high performer leaves an organization, it can affect their team’s morale and create a lot of questions for those left behind. Now that this employee is gone, their teammates may wonder if they’ll have to bear the burden of more work. People might also speculate that the high performer left because they were dissatisfied with their manager or the leader of the organization.

HR leaders need to consider many factors when it comes to handling the loss of a high performer. Not only do they have to create the best offboarding experience possible for that individual, they also have to figure out how to communicate this departure to that person’s team and the company at large, and take actions to ensure that their organization doesn’t lose a large number of high performers in the future. 

Communicating a High Performer’s Departure

HR teams need to establish clear messaging around why an employee is leaving. This includes thinking through how to highlight a high performer’s achievements while they were at your organization. It’s also essential to consider how this departure will affect their teammates.

Telling the rest of the team about the high performer’s departure is a key opportunity for HR to get involved, said Jeannie Chun, Head of People Operations at Stockwell, a company that provides curated, customizable vending machines of snacks and everyday essentials. And it’s a process that involves sensitivity and thoughtfulness.

“How do we tell them? When do we tell them? We know some people are going to respond badly, while others might be excited to step up and fill this new role,” Chun said.

When a high-performing employee resigns, managers and HR should collaborate and take steps to learn as much as they can from the situation, Chun advised. “Make sure to do an exit survey and ask tailored exit questions. Then analyze that information and exit data and see if there are any trends, or something new that you missed. If there’s something new, then think about how you can apply it to conversations you are having with other high performers,” she said.

Not only is it necessary to facilitate one-on-one conversations with managers, the departing employee, and other high performers in order to collect actionable data, but it’s also crucial to give your high performer an opportunity to leave your company on a positive note.

“It’s really important to acknowledge and celebrate talent when they leave and then there’s more transparency throughout your organization,” said Kate Kastenbaum, VP of People Ops at Remind, a communication platform used in educational settings. “They leave in such a positive state, and it’s very motivating to the rest of the team,” she said.

Doing this normalizes the departure, Kastenbaum said, and makes leaving a part of everyday life rather than something that’s considered problematic or concerning.

Giving high-performing employees the opportunity to express themselves and tell their story helps others realize how fundamental your organization was to their career trajectory. At the same time, openly discussing an employee's departure can give highly engaged employees an opportunity to voice their own concerns, and to explore career advancement and growth.

Creating Advancement Opportunities

According to the 2018 Workplace Learning Report from LinkedIn, a staggering 94% of employees stay at their companies longer when organizations invest in their careers. And a recent Gallup report found that “career growth opportunities" is the number one reason people give for changing jobs. Investing in the career development of your employees boosts employee retention, morale, and loyalty.

When a high performer leaves your organization, it’s a good time to assess their teammates and see if there is an opportunity to better leverage your employees’ talents.

“Having good internal mobility processes is important,” said Kastenbaum. “There should be a conversation between HR and the hiring manager to see if there is someone in the organization who would be a good fit for the open role. There has to be a process in place for a growth opportunity to happen,” she said.

Take stock of the resources your organization provides. Do you offer mentorship programs or pay for employee development and classes? What else can HR do to encourage internal mobility and show that your organization is invested in your employees’ advancement?

“Figure out how you can fill these gaps,” said Chun. “See if there’s an overlap in skills and if [the high performer’s] work can be divided, or if you need to hire a replacement. When a high performer leaves, this is usually a time when someone who wanted the opportunity will rise up, but didn’t in the past because they felt [like they were] in the shadow of a high performer,” she said.

Listening to the High Performer’s Feedback

In a blog post, Jon Michaels, Senior Vice President of Operations at Volta, an electric charging station network, said, “If you are going to be in the business of being a leader, people will eventually leave your team. If you are going to be in the business of being a leader of a high performing team, it’s even more likely that a high performer will leave — and it will initially sting when they do.”

With that in mind, strive to keep a high level of engagement with your high-performing employees while they work at your organization, listen to their feedback, and make changes accordingly. However, understand that just as your company’s needs evolve, so do the needs of even your best employees.

“High performers know companies aren’t perfect, and they understand that there won’t always be opportunities for cognitive development for them. So managers just have to be more intentional,” Kastenbaum said. “The more the manager communicates to the high performer about why something hits a snag, the better,” she said.

Employees feel that their feedback is valued when they see their company’s leaders taking action to support them and their teammates. “It’s about listening to high performers and their feedback, especially before that exit interview, and giving guidance to their managers and team leads about what they could do in the future,” she said.

Seeing It as a Opportunity for Improvement

When a high performer leaves your company, it’s a moment to assess your internal processes and how you’re giving existing employees opportunities for growth in order to better retain top talent. Instead of viewing the departure of a high performer as a negative situation, HR can leverage this occasion to strengthen communication between managers, build relationships with individual employees, and listen to staff feedback to build the best work environment possible for high performers to thrive.