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That New Year resignation may not be as bad as you fear.

Date: Jan 14, 2015

It is the moment every manager or partner dreads – a vital member of your team tells you they have been offered a better job and that they are resigning.  How should you react?  Is it worth trying to persuade them to change their mind?  In this article we examine the pros and cons of trying to retain them and suggest a few ideas that may help to minimise the risk of such an event arising in the first place.

The start of a new year is a popular time for employees to switch employers so you may be one of the many managers or partners who will be confronted with a resignation in the coming weeks.  The period after the festive season is always very busy, which makes this a particularly inconvenient time to have to cope with the disruption caused by a departure and finding a replacement.  It can be especially frustrating if it involves one of the key employees who you have dreaded losing.

Employers regularly state that their employees are the most important assets of their business and this is unarguably the case in the world of intellectual property where a highly skilled workforce is employed at all levels in the team.  Companies/firms will have spent significant amounts in recruiting, inducting, training and supporting the continued development of both professional and support staff in their IP teams.  The departing individual may also have an excellent personal relationship with important clients so naturally their employer will be concerned to see all this investment walk out of the door, possibly to work for a direct competitor.

Don’t panic!

The temptation to expend a lot of effort in fighting to retain the employee may not always be the best response once the situation is examined objectively.    When confronted by a resigning employee a manger or partner may do well to buy a little time to think and to consult with appropriate colleagues.  It is natural to immediately express disappointment at the news but try to schedule a time to discuss the situation shortly thereafter, ideally later the same day, once you have had time to collect your thoughts and calmly prepare your response.

Despite their pronouncements about the importance of their staff many employers fail to regularly demonstrate this adequately to their workers.  It is wrong to think that an annual pay review and perhaps a bonus will suffice and of course in the present difficult economic circumstances many businesses are not able to offer much, if anything, by way of financial sweeteners to help keep their workforce happy.  Inevitably such a scenario raises the risk that staff will be targeted by rival employers who are able to offer more and naturally the ‘high performers’ are most likely to be the focus of their attention.  

There are many things that employers can do to help retain vital staff, even in a time when finances are restrained but a ‘knee jerk’ reaction when confronted by a resignation is unlikely to yield a satisfactory long term solution for the employee concerned or for preserving harmony within the whole team.  A desperate effort to rescue the situation with a hasty pay rise or promising to transfer more attractive work from a colleague may lead to even bigger problems in the future.

Prevention is always better than cure

2015 has been forecast to be the best year for the jobs market since 2007 so it makes sense to be prepared for attractive offers to be dangled in front of your most talented performers.  Demand for good, experienced intellectual property staff remains high so it is sensible to try and reduce the chances of losing your key players.  

The process for retaining employees begins at the time they are recruited so from the outset try to avoid giving an unrealistic or inaccurate representation of the working environment that they will be joining.  A disillusioned recruit is likely to move on again quite quickly if they believe they have been misled about the situation or their prospects for advancing their career in the intellectual property field with this position.  Conducting an exit interview is important and it may reveal why the previous postholder is leaving, providing an opportunity for the employer to consider revisions that may reduce the chances of a repeat situation arising.

 Good managers/partners will have consulted regularly with all of their team members and should understand the personal ambitions, longer term goals and any frustrations that each employee may have with their present role.  As a minimum, an annual appraisal should be held to review performance and to set targets for the year ahead, along with a mid-year review to monitor progress and make any necessary revision to the objectives.  Ideally there should also be regular informal interactions between managers/partners and their team members to supplement the formal review meetings and allow for an informal flow of feedback in both directions.  It is important to make sure employees are kept informed about the value they are adding to the business.

If there is a good communication process of this sort then resignations should rarely come as a complete surprise to a competent manager/partner.  They should already have picked up on relevant issues and have explored whether any ambition or dissatisfaction that has been aired by an employee is reasonable and whether it can be accommodated or resolved in some way.  There should also be a clear and shared understanding of what the employee’s longer term career aspirations are and how far they can be nurtured within their present organisation.  Employees should be encouraged to develop a personal development plan and in an ideal culture they will have the confidence to share them (at least in part) with their manager/partner so that they can be supported in moving ahead to achieve their overall career goals.

Surprisingly few employees seek a new job primarily for financial reasons.  Job satisfaction and a sense of fulfilment result from a far more complex set of factors than that.  How an employee interacts with their immediate boss is the most important factor in ensuring they are happy and motivated to perform well at work so it is essential that there is real commitment to this relationship.

Employers should not simply comply with their minimum legal obligations in relation to flexible working but instead they should genuinely try to embrace the principle of seeking to meet the reasonable needs and desires of staff in this regard unless there are strong business reasons to decline.  Failure to agree to such a request may become a critical reason for someone moving jobs to a more accommodating employer.

Seeking ideas from employees at all levels in the organisation and genuinely welcoming and considering their inputs helps them to feel that they matter and that management truly values them.  All but the most confidential aspects of the future plans for developing the business should be shared with all team members so they can understand the goals and how they will be involved.
Fostering an environment that demonstrates care for employees will generally be repaid by them showing loyalty in return and it will result in them being less likely to be interested in changing jobs.  Organising good team building events and supporting charitable or other non-work activities by individual team members may also help to strengthen bonds and make employees less likely to be tempted to move on.  In summary, the company or firm should take care to manage their reputation as a good employer because this will be a critical factor, both for retaining existing staff and for attracting new recruits of the highest quality.

Nobody is indispensible

However despite the best efforts made by a business sometimes it will have to be accepted that at this point in time it cannot provide all that an employee may desire from their career.  Responding to a threatened resignation with an over-generous ‘quick fix’ may distort the overall reward structure or otherwise upset the balance within the team, leading to further problems in the future.  Sometimes it is best for both parties to simply recognise that the point has been reached where it is best for there to be a parting of the ways.

An employee may have been doing a good job and the status quo may seem to be very satisfactory but it is important for management to guard against complacency and to recognise that too low a staff turnover may be just as bad as too high a rate of defection.  Employers will always try to find out what is wrong if too many employees depart within a given period but few will ever consider whether too few employees are leaving – which may be a symptom of an unchallenging culture, easy-to-reach performance targets, a too comfortable life that fails to optimise the potential output from the group or perhaps it suggests a group of employees who simply lack dynamism and ambition.

It is important for both the departing employee and the employer to try to make the break an amicable one.  Their paths may cross again at some point and in any case there may be unexpected issues that arise where one party may need the co-operation of the other to smooth the transition.
Think positively

 The working environment will always benefit from a certain amount of ‘new blood’ and the fresh ideas that come with it.  Former employees who have moved onwards and upwards in their careers should be seen as a positive factor, both in terms of inspiring your more junior employees (who will see a potential opportunity for progress) and for potential new recruits (demonstrating that this is an organisation where staff are able to develop skills that help them to move forwards with their careers).  

Therefore, a resignation, even if it is by a key employee, can in many cases be viewed positively.   It is an opportunity to objectively examine how the role might be refreshed and whether its contribution to the overall organisational performance can be improved, whilst also providing greater job satisfaction and self fulfilment for the future holder of the post.  It also provides a chance to promote from within if there is a suitable candidate with the right experience and qualifications.

If it is decided to recruit a replacement externally this may reveal some unexpectedly strong candidates who are keen to join the team.  If there has been no recruitment in to the organisation for some time then the calibre of the talent available in the IP field may come as a pleasant surprise.  

Perhaps in the long run that New Year resignation may turn out not to have been so bad after all!


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