Once upon a time, a relatively new mid-level manager’s best employee announced he was leaving. He had been recruited to a position at a prestigious organization, one with more cachet than his current employer. Most of the people in his organization were thrilled for him. But not everyone.

The departing employee (let’s call him Fred) was asked to meet with his manager, his manager's manager, and the organization’s president. While four people were in the room, the conversation was essentially between the president and the departing employee.

I was the mid-level manager in the scenario, I had a front-row seat to the conversation.



The President asked Fred what we could do to keep him: more money, more perks, what?

Fred replied, “I’m going to this organization because it’s my dream job in my dream organization. So I’m not looking for more money or anything else here.”

The President was persistent. “But you must be leaving for a reason. It must be because Lynne either didn’t support you or did something to you.”

“No, Lynne has been incredibly supportive of me and my program," Fred said. I’m leaving because I’m going to my dream place.”

The conversation continued in this vein for several more minutes. Fred said to the President, “I’m not sure whether your current role as our president is your dream job in your dream organization, but I hope if it’s not, that you’ll find your dream job one day.”

Fred left the organization several months later. And Lynne was blamed by that President for causing him to leave.

Who is to blame when your best employee leaves? Or should anyone be blamed?

It depends.

In some situations, excellent employees are not supported as they probably should be. If they don’t feel appreciated by their supervisors, they should look for a place they will be valued. And appreciation is not always monetary. Supervisors have to tell them, privately for sure, and publically, as appropriate, how terrific and important to the organization they are. They need to be listened to because these employees are valuable and have good ideas and opinions. Employees who don’t feel valued will leave, even if it’s to get away from a bad situation. I encourage people to run to a good situation and not just away from a bad one.

But in situations like Fred’s, should anyone have been blamed? Fred had great support from everyone around him and received numerous accolades for his excellent work. I was a huge fan of his and did what I could to promote both his program and Fred himself.

In this case, Fred was leaving for the right reason. He had told me early in my tenure at the university that he planned to stay at our school forever, unless his dream institution (and he named it) recruited him. So, selfishly, I hoped they didn’t call, but fully expected that one day they would.

When they did, I was thrilled for him. And then I got blamed for his departure.

Oh well. Sometimes you accept being held responsible for something you didn’t do. You just grin and bear it. Fortunately, my direct supervisor understood the situation and supported me.

The takeaway here is that every situation is different. If someone is leaving because he hasn’t been valued, question how that could happen. But if he is leaving for a dream situation, celebrate that we got to work with him and saw up-close and personal what success looks like! And then let’s not cast blame.

Lynne Richardson is a business professor at the University of Mary Washington.

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