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I used to manage a small team a while back, but I switched to another division within the same company a few months ago. In that team I used to do regular 1-on-1s to see if the people in my team were still happy, but when I left, I don't think that practice was continued properly.

A person who used to be in that team came to me recently wanting to catch up, but it quickly turned into something similar to the 1-on-1s we used to have, and they told me that they are not happy with how their career was looking after the change in team lead. They asked for career advice and whether they should stay at the company, because they are seriously considering to leave, and I can honestly not blame them. I did offer some generic advice regarding thinking if his goals align with what the team can offer, and mentioned that if we are to discuss any further career moves we should do that outside of company hours/offices.

I now feel conflicted between my employer (small 50 person company) and my former team member. I've promised the team member not to mention anything to management, so I'll definitely not violate that promise. But I'm unsure whether this was the best/most ethical way to proceed. Any advice?

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    What do you want the end result to be here? – Matthew Gaiser Jan 5 at 15:42
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    @MatthewGaiser I want to help my former team member because I've seen them grow significantly and don't want to see that stopped, so leaving is in this case possibly good for them. But I also want the team to get back on track since I've helped build it, and the reasons for leaving are an indication of some larger management problems that could/should be addressed. – Jeroen Jan 5 at 15:49
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IMHO you did behave ethical. Now, if a couple of team mates come, I would go to management and say "look, there is a widespread problem in this team, a number of people approached me" - but one: no. He came on a personal level, that must be honored.

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  • Hello TomTom, I am not sure to understand your last sentence "but one" ? – Sebastien DErrico Jan 5 at 16:50
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    @SebastienDErrico "but one" perfectly clear - it was only one person that came to see him (so far, in the future who knows). – Solar Mike Jan 5 at 18:38
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    Exactly. With ONE team member complaining this does not indicate a team problem (it may well be an incompatibility on a personal level) and in this case I would say the trust of that person trumps any obligation. – TomTom Jan 5 at 18:53
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Just because you work for a company does not mean you are obligated to report everything to them. You would be ethically responsible to report this against the individual's wishes if their intended actions were destructive (to themselves or others), and you'd be expected to act as part of your role if you were still this person's supervisor. But neither case is true. Choosing to quit is not "destructive" - it's a career choice and a professional way to terminate one's obligations to a company - there's nothing that obligates you to give the company a heads up.

If you happen to be well connected and able to offer this person a change within the company, then it could potentially be worth it to ask them if it's OK to share some of the conversation in the interest of doing them some good. For example, if there was a really reasonable way to get the new team lead in your old group to get better at giving people career support, or if you knew of an opening in your current group that this person might benefit from. Those are some big "ifs", though.

In my experience, it's been very rare for my knowledge about dissatisfaction within my network to be useful in helping a company be a better company. So generally I find it's more useful to maintain people's privacy and serve as a confidant.

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  • One caveat to add is that anyone with a management function, even if it's in a different team or management chain, is normally considered to have some level of responsibility towards the company. It doesn't change anything about this excellent answer, but in certain situations that could still mean you'd have to act on information you receive outside formal channels, for example warning another manager about a problem you observed. – Lilienthal Jan 8 at 13:37
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You did the right thing here in supporting the individual, and it's how I imagine my managers would also deal with me if I spoke with them on a similar basis.

You should only really raise this with the upper management if you honestly feel that people are leaving for reasons that can affect the revenue-earning ability of the company or if there's some definite factors that are encouraging people to leave - and in that eventuality, it would be a good idea to bring a solution to those issues instead of just the issues themselves.

If you're able to, then an informal water-cooler type chat (without going into any specifics) with the team lead in question might gain some insight their side of the situation.

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I had a similar situation happen a year ago. An employee of a client asked me for advice about her job because she was unhappy. My contract with the client includes a "non-solicit" clause".

Instead of giving advice on the job, I gave her a list of questions to help her learn what her values were. Questions included:

  • Any fears or resentments are a sign that my values are being violated. How can I use them to identify my values?
  • What kind of dreams do I have for my work life?
  • What resentments do I have towards my work, my boss, my company?
    How have I denied my feelings of resentment in order to keep getting a paycheck?
  • Fear keeps us stuck in the same old patterns and actions. Sometimes, that is the only way that we can know that we have fear - we instinctively avoid certain actions, options, and possibilities.
    What have I avoided doing?
    What opportunities have I walked away from?
    What options for my life have I refused to acknowledge were there?

In this way, I did not violate the contract but could help the employee decide for themselves what action to take. (She was eventually terminated 6 months later for other reasons.)

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  • So your approach failed spectacularly? Is that the message here? – TonyK Jan 11 at 21:28
  • Oh no, the termination was due to the collapse in oil prices and the company had to downsize. But her self reflection allowed her to stay that long. – David R Jan 11 at 22:28
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While you already received excellent input, I figured I'd address the conflict you're experiencing as it's quite a common one that managers face. Inherent to it are the two main responsibilities you have as a manager:

  • creating and maintaining a high-performing team that accomplishes it goals reliably and effectively
  • coaching and guiding your team members to grow professionally

Usually those two goals are aligned. As your team members improve, the work your team as a whole can deliver does as well. However, at some point you're going to have people who report to you who've hit a limit in what they can accomplish in your team. That's not really a matter of if but rather when. While there are some people who have found the job they want to do until they retire, a lot of people will have a career trajectory in mind that includes personal and professional growth. While your team can also grow in role and responsibility over time, at most firms that won't happen as fast as the professional growth of your team members.

Eventually, you're going to have people working for you who are ready to move on to a more challenging role that you cannot offer them. At that point they have three options:

  • accept that they can't grow here and stay in the role (for a while)
  • move to a different role in the organization
  • find a new employer

You have a role to play in all of these. In the former you have to be clear with the employee that you can't offer them a direct growth path right now. Some managers will even encourage employees to move on.

Moving within the organisation is win-win for all involved and I don't think I need to go into detail on what your role should be in that process.

Now obviously the last point can seem problematic because it means parting ways with what is probably a good employee. (If it's not a good employee, you should have been acting to correct that rather than waiting for them to leave but that's a separate topic.) Losing them means providing coverage until you can fill the role, finding and hiring a replacement, training the new person and investing time to get them to a similar level. All of that is expensive and means a short-term impact on your work.

Many manager feel that this is where the contradiction is: you want to help an employee grow professionally but feel strange about encouraging them to move on when it negatively impacts your team or employer. But I would argue that the morale boost and motivation your team will get out of having an excellent manager who handles this situation well is worth it.

Employees are not indentured servants. They will and do move on, regardless of whether you support them. Knowing that, being open and transparent with people who are looking to move on and not punishing anyone by pushing them out early will pay dividends with your other employees. They will in turn be more likely to be open with you about their plans allowing you to build a stronger and more effective team.

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  • Hi Lilienthal, I appreciate the extensive answer, but I feel like it doesn't address the question. My main question was how to handle knowing that a former team member is thinking about leaving, with respect to having information relevant to the company but also with promised confidentiality. – Jeroen Jan 8 at 15:49
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    @Jeroen Hmm, didn't get that from your question or the comment you left above. There I got the impression you were simply wondering if what you did was the right way to proceed (as other answers confirmed) and you saw a conflict in helping that person while respecting your managerial duty to the company. That's what i was trying to cover in this answer. I think the other answers confirmed the way to handle it was as you had: act as a mentor and support this person but don't do anything else. – Lilienthal Jan 8 at 16:17
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    I guess it warrants saying that you don't have anything to action right now: this person might leave or might not. You don't have actionable information even if you were this person's manager (apart from checking if their needs can be met at your current org). See also this off-site question on that. But it's going beyond the scope of this question I guess. – Lilienthal Jan 8 at 16:18
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In no case are you or the company better off if you report that someone thinks about leaving. Why?

What will be the outcome if you report for example to HR that someone thinks about leaving? The three most common reactions are: 1. Nothing. 2. They tell you to try to keep the person at the company. 3. They prepare to fire the person.

If they do (3) you achieved exactly the opposite of what you wanted to achieve. If they do (2) you should be in the best position to decide whether you want to keep the person or not if they are thinking about leaving; if you wanted to keep them you achieved nothing by reporting it, if you were quite happy if the person left then you got the opposite of what you wanted. If they do (1) then there was no need to report it.

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