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I am the manager of a small team of software engineers. One of the business folks came to me the other day and let me know that one of my employees was overheard several times on the phone setting up job interviews. I am wondering if and how I can approach this employee, in an effort to convince her to stay, and if not, to prepare as much in advance as possible for her absence.

The employee in question is an above average contributor, and gets along well with the rest of the team. She does have some specific domain knowledge of certain components which would be a pain to retrain someone on, and our company is currently in a cost savings mode so there is a chance she would not be replaced at all if she left.

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    "our company is currently in a cost savings mode" - and you're surprised that your team is setting up job interviews? – Telastyn Jun 25 '15 at 14:28
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    @Telastyn - not surprised, but that doesn't mean I don't want to try to keep her if reasonably possible. Also, even in cost savings mode, our company has one of the better compensation packages in the area. We still get bonuses and raises, just limiting new hires, travel expenses, etc at the moment. – EkoostikMartin Jun 25 '15 at 14:31
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    Purely personal reaction: How does this differ from rumors about headcount actions in the other direction? First priority should probably be to quash the rumor mill. – keshlam Jun 26 '15 at 0:05
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    I'd be more worried about "one of my employees was overheard several times on the phone setting up job interviews". They may even be trying to stir up trouble having conversations like that publicly. That will have a terrible effect on morale in your team. "If X is going, maybe she knows something", "this is a sinking ship" etc. – Fiona - myaccessible.website Jun 26 '15 at 13:12
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    In my experience, once an employee gets to the point where they are actively interviewing, it's too late to retain them -- they've already decided that it's not worth speaking with me (their manager) or HR about whatever it is that makes them want to leave. You may be able to convince them to stay for a bit longer to see a project through, but once they get into that "grass is greener" mindset, they start to see green grass everywhere, so it's only a matter of time before they leave. So the best thing you can do is cooperate with them and help them to make an orderly transition. – Johnny Jun 26 '15 at 17:02
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I am wondering if and how I can approach this employee, in an effort to convince her to stay

Of course you can approach her.

Something like "I heard through the grapevine that you might be setting up job interviews. Can we talk about that?" might work.

Then ask if she is unhappy at your company, and if so, why.

She may be willing to talk about it, or might be reluctant. You might need to assure her that talking about it confidentially with you is "safe", and that you won't hold it against her or retaliate. If you state this - make sure you follow through on it - otherwise don't say it.

Sometimes, people leave for reasons that are out of their manager's control - the need to relocate, the desire to change professions, etc. Sometimes, people leave for reasons that you can affect - hours, work assignments, salary (although if the "company is currently in a cost savings mode", you may not be able to help here), etc. Sometimes people leave because they don't like their manager (you). Either way, at least knowing will give you a chance.

Even if this employee has decided she is going to leave, you have a chance to make it easier on her, and easier on you at the same time. Perhaps you could give her time to do her interviews, in exchange for more notice, or a more robust transfer of knowledge to whoever you choose to take over her role. It could be more of a win-win, or at least a healthier exit strategy.

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    I really, really wish that more employers/employees would do what you describe in the last paragraph.So much better for everyone if exits could be coordinated, but it takes a cool boss and a lot of trust on the part of the employee for that to happen. – teego1967 Jun 25 '15 at 15:26
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    How would one be expected to react if the approach was responded to with "no I'm not doing that" or "no, I don't want to discuss it"? – Raystafarian Jun 25 '15 at 17:45
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    This behavior makes a huge difference to employee morale. Huge. I was recently approached by a competitor. I mentioned it to my team lead (also line manager) on the side. He told me that if i felt i wanted to think about it then he would help me make the best decision for me. I stopped thinking about it immediately. – Gusdor Jun 26 '15 at 7:08
  • @teego1967 I fully agree, and one factor that will make this much more likely to happen is to have longer mutal lay off/resign time (e.g. months instead of weeks). See this answer where I discuss this effect. – hlovdal Jun 26 '15 at 11:55
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    This is an excellent answer. I was recently thinking about what a shame it is that when somebody moves company, the three players involved (current employer, employee, next employer) always have to stop short of fully co-operating even if they all bear each other nothing but good will. Exits are definitely an area where there's a potential for win-wins – Ben Aaronson Jun 26 '15 at 15:26
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She does have some specific domain knowledge of certain components which would be a pain to retrain someone on ...

What if she wins a lottery or (G-d forbid) got struck by a bus? What are you going to do then?

Put in the time and energy now with her to document in detail the work that she does to make sure she is replaceable and the work can be done by others.

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    This should probably be a comment but it is true. Business continuity is a huge issue. – Gusdor Jun 26 '15 at 7:09
  • I also agree with the content of the answer, still, this isn't an answer, more a comment. – Sempie Jun 26 '15 at 7:48
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    Also agree that this is more of a comment as is, but rather than recommend deletion I'll recommend that you expand your answer to make it a better fit for the Workplace. Check out our Help Center for some tips on how to answer. – David K Jun 26 '15 at 12:22
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    I disagree with "this is a comment". "You are doing it wrong" is a perfectly valid answer. Sure, there exist more useful answers in this case, but this one still qualifies as one IMHO. – o0'. Jun 26 '15 at 20:22
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Instead of focusing on the possibility that she is job searching, you should be focused on what you can do to retain her. As for asking her if she is planning to leave, you simply don't need to.

Ask to speak with her, but instead of discussing her job search, let her know that she is a valued member of your team, and that you'd like to make sure that you are doing everything possible to retain her. While the implication of the conversation might be "I know you're job searching", it doesn't focus on that, and keeps the conversation from straying into uncomfortable territory.

You might want to consider having this same conversation with every member of your team (unless of course there are people you'd rather find a new job anyway...)

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    "You might want to consider having this same conversation with every member of your team". I agree. Regular one-on-one meetings allow many issues to be addressed before they become problems. As an employee, my "disgruntle factor" has definitely gone up since my boss got too busy to talk with me every other week or so. – Brandon Mintern Jun 26 '15 at 18:50
  • @BrandonMintern: Meh, try working for a company where such meetings literally never happen. – Lightness Races in Orbit Jun 27 '15 at 15:55
  • One on one discussions only work if you discuss. If you provide no feedback, the employee can't tell whether they're doing well or poorly. The end of year review results should never be a surprise; if they are, Management Is Doing It Wrong. – keshlam Jun 28 '15 at 19:50
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Invite her to lunch. Tell her

We really value you at this company and I want to do everything I can to make sure you are happy with your position. Please let me know what I can do to ensure that!

That's no guarantee she'll stay, but at least she knows there's an opening for discussing this.

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You should inform her that you heard the rumor. It's a show of good faith to give her an opportunity to address any confusion. I would let her know that regardless of the rumor, you are please with her work and want her to stay. Maybe she needs to know she has some job security.

I would also point out that it's not wise to have these kinds of phone conversations in the office. I don't know the company policy about personal phone calls in the office or flex-time, but it's wise to handle them outside of the office and probably on her own time. It's the best way to avoid these kinds of rumors and misunderstandings.

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I'm on the other side of the table right now in a really (coincidently) close situation. I'm interviewing everywhere, I have a set of skills that can't be found easily and we are in a cost saving situation.

Here's what I would hope my boss did if he ever found out.

Have a conversation

Invite the employee to your office and mention the rumours. You are obviously worried about this but make sure you don't look angry or scared or anything. So far, those are rumours. Treat them as such. If she says they are not true, accept the answer but ask the following question anyway.

The trick here is to be respectful of the sentiment of the employee towards the company. If she's leaving, there's a reason. It might be financial, it might be about "finding a new challenge" or go deeper. In my situation right now it's a mix of two things. I'm not paid enough and the cost saving mode makes me believe I might get cut sometime.

If you would get an offer somewhere, how long would your notice be?

It's a perfectly fine thing to ask. 2 weeks in my country is culturally acceptable but I already determined with a couple people in interview that if they want me, I'd like a month notice because I'm on important projects.

If she did get offers and tells you something that's culturally acceptable wherever you are, I suggest you take it and thank her for letting you know. Show your appreciation. My worst fear would be for an employer to try to sabotage my career to keep me where I am.

Else: Ask her if she could give you that culturally acceptable time so you can try to find someone if needed be

Either way, be clear that your intention is not to keep her here forever but just to be prepared.

You are a valuable member of our team and I'd rather have you stay then leave. Is there anything I can do to make your work here more appreciable?

Notice the way I formulated the question here. You show appreciation but you also want constructive criticism. You might not get any, but at least you'll learn something. Either she wants to leave for personal reasons or you can reassure her on some fronts or offer her something else. You might not be able to give her a better salary but maybe she'd be better in a different office or something else.

End the conversation with a reminder that you appreciate her time and skills and thank her for talking to you.

Last thing I'd want to know is that my boss would suddenly hate me or be all passive aggressive on me. I always get along with everyone I work with so if looking for a different job would make my workplace uncomfortable, I would be looking even more ferociously.

  • do you mean "make you feel more appreciated" rather than "more appreciable" – Móż Dec 22 '15 at 3:46
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Viewing this question from the other side - I'm currently working out my month's notice period at my current employer.

Yes I took a half-day annual leave to go to an interview. My boss didn't know I was looking. But an employer or manager can't expect people to stay when wages/salary doesn't keep up.

So consider why someone might be leaving. If they're worth keeping, they're worth paying more (or fixing whatever bugs them enough to leave.)

"cost saving mode" suggests that money might not be available. But one of the less-stated role of managers is to get and keep good people. You need to actively fight for their pay rises, or find other benefits that are equivalent to a payrise (my work is an ISP, and a free internet link was a perq)

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You may have two problems, one that you somehow found out of and one that you haven't yet. 1. You know that some employee wants to flee, you are surprised (that should raise a flag*) and you just need to find out why. Ask her! Not directly, ask her what she'd like to see improved in the company. Be open and genuine - you may find a lot of new things. 2. *You don't know how many others are doing just the same and why. So you'd better ask each of them what they'd like to see improved etc. Better be surprised too soon rather than too late.

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