The Employee Experience: Separation


Hide or Hug

I have a litmus test to tell me how well I handled an employee separation. I call it “Hide or Hug.” Basically, it’s what I might do when I see that person out in public after we’ve parted ways.

I’ve done my fair share of hiding from former employees. The first person I ever fired ended up in line behind me to board a plane not too long ago. I hid. I should have apologized to him for how I handled his departure, but I just avoided him and hoped he didn’t see me. Another former employee told me to “go to hell” when I said hello to her in the grocery store. After that, if I saw her car in the parking lot, I would go to the store across town. Thank goodness we now have online ordering! 

Both of those people were unfortunate enough to experience me as an immature and unaware leader who didn’t understand the magnitude of being someone’s employer. I also wasn’t experienced in having difficult conversations with employees and had not yet worked with an HR coach to guide me through that process, so I usually said and did everything wrong. I wish those two above were the only examples, but sadly there’s a list of people who will tell you that working at my company in the beginning of my career was chaotic at best, and toxic at worst, and they did not have a favorable lasting impression.

Protect the Culture

The painful part of entering into any relationship is knowing that it will eventually end. Regardless of circumstances, it’s important to remember that the employee experience includes how you part ways with a team member. If you want to avoid hiding from someone in public, make sure your company’s core values lead the employee experience from the first impression to the last impression.

When it comes to employee separation, there are two categories: voluntary, which is the employee’s decision, and involuntary, which is the employer’s decision. Making swift decisions related to involuntary separation is one of the most important things you can do to preserve and protect your company culture. 

Few things will negatively impact a company culture more than having the wrong person in the wrong seat. When it comes to deciding whether someone should be employed by you, it’s easy to just think of the employee in question. However, if you want to build a great culture, you have to think of every other person on the team and how they are impacted by the one in question. 

Here are some common examples of wrong person and/or wrong seat situations that will require you to make difficult decisions for the greater good of your company and the people in it:

  • Culture fit, but not a job fit: Your top performers will get tired of carrying this person’s load. If they truly embody the culture and values, try to find a different seat for them where they can excel. If that’s not an option, invite them to find a new company and job better suited for their skills. You’ll instantly see productivity increase once they’re removed from their seat. 
  • Job fit, but not a culture fit: Even if they’re a top performer, this person will eventually drive away your best people if you continue to tolerate their behavior. It doesn’t matter how skilled someone is at their job…if they’re not a fit for the values, they need to go. 
  • Neither a culture fit nor a job fit: Some people are great at telling you what you want to hear during the interview process, but they turn into a different person when the boss is out of sight. A healthy culture will weed out those people quickly. You know you’ve built something great when a team member comes to you and says the new person isn’t a fit. They’re protecting your culture!

Once you’ve decided that it’s time to end someone’s employment, you need to plan how and when to have that conversation with them. If you’ve never worked with an HR coach to guide you through the right way to do this, make it a 2024 goal to work with a professional to create an offboarding process for your company. 

Have You Ever Been Fired? 

In our industry, compassion is a common core value, but to be honest, we sometimes forget that our customers aren’t the only ones who need that compassion from us. Compassion starts inside your company, with the people you’re responsible for. Just like we have to think about the first day from the employee’s perspective, we have to think about the last day from their perspective as well. 

A recurring theme of this Employee Experience series is asking ourselves, “Would I work for me?” The challenge for us this month is asking ourselves, “How would I want someone to fire me?” 

The first step in the offboarding process is taking responsibility for the situation you’re in. After all, you hired them. Even if the employee has done something egregious, where we first went wrong was hiring the wrong person for the seat.

When telling someone that you’re ending their employment, it can be tempting at times to be brutally honest and say what’s on your mind, or to get down in the weeds, or just rip the band-aid off and be more focused on getting it over with instead of focusing on compassionately delivering a life-altering message to someone.  

You’ll never regret leading with compassion and grace, remaining respectful, and expressing appreciation for the time and effort they’ve given you. Remember, after they leave your office, they have to tell their family and friends that they’re unemployed. I’ve never had to do that, but I imagine it’s fairly tough, so let’s not add insult to injury.    


There’s one thing I dread as a leader. It’s when someone comes to my door and says, “Do you have a minute?” and then they walk in and close the door behind them. Of course, there are times when you’re expecting a resignation and it’s a relief to receive that letter, but there are times when you’re caught off guard. Over the years, I’ve had to practice my response and learn not to take it personally. Ok, maybe I still take it personally, but now I know it’s not about me. It’s about them. 

When receiving resignations, use these as opportunities to listen and learn. The way you handle this conversation may help you understand areas of your business that need to be improved. If you have a negative reaction to their resignation news, they probably won’t feel comfortable giving you more details regarding their decision to depart. Be receptive. 

When you have a people-first culture, it’s not uncommon to have team members leave on good terms. Those people can still be raving fans and refer customers and team members to you in the future. Be sure to support them in their future endeavors and show genuine excitement for their future. Also, keep the door open for a top performer to return. They may find the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, but it’s greener where they water it. 

The Problem With Writing a Culture Column

Each separation has a lesson for you. You can either look back on what you did right, or what you did wrong, but either way, there’s something to learn. Give yourself some grace when you find out where you went wrong, but use that information to do better next time. 

Everything I’ve written comes from hard lessons I’ve learned along the way, and some I’m still learning now. When I sat down to write this, I generated a turnover report in BambooHR, and then I avoided writing until the absolute last minute because I didn’t like what I saw. Here I am, writing a culture column, and I’ve got retention issues. How embarrassing! As it turns out, I’m a human.

I spent some time digging into why our turnover is at 30%. I filtered reports based on termination reason, length of service, job title, and manager. Then, I spent time looking for trends and how we can improve.  

My reports confirmed what I already knew. I tend to do two things wrong: one, I promote people past their level of competency, and two, I will hire someone referred to us by someone we know, putting more trust in the person who referred us than in the hiring process. An interesting finding is that more than half of our terminations occurred in the technician role in the first three to six months of employment, due to poor job fit. 

During a quarterly planning session this year, our leadership team agreed that we’re tired of banging our heads against the wall when it comes to hiring the right people. One of the quarterly rocks we agreed on was investing in a better hiring assessment tool, and we rolled it out with existing team members as well. That tool helped us to see growth and leadership potential, areas where people are best suited to excel, and areas where people are likely to fail. Basically, it helps us determine job fit for candidates and existing team members.  

Do we have it all figured out now? No, but once we knew better, we decided to do better. The immediate result has been more intentional decision making based on data instead of feelings. And if we do it right, the long-term result will be a lower turnover rate and less “Do you have a minute?” conversations. 

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Katie Smith, CR

Katie Smith, CR is the second generation owner of PHC Restoration in North Carolina, an independent company committed to making a positive impact on its team, customers and community. Passionate about servant leadership and building relationships, Katie plays an active role both inside of her company and within the industry. She currently serves as the President of the Restoration Industry Association, the oldest and largest non-profit, professional trade association dedicated to providing leadership and promoting best practices through advocacy, education & professional networking opportunities for the restoration industry.

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