Ever lose one of your top performers?  Then you know how difficult it is.  Whether he storms out, or submits an eloquent letter of resignation, the void he leaves behind can be massive.

A key employee is someone who is not easily replaced – because he has years of experience with you, because he has developed and nurtured critical client relationships or simply because he’s fantastic at his job.  Bottom line, the unique value he adds to your organization makes the loss that much greater.

Like it or not, turnover of top performers is an inevitable part of business.  Since you can’t avoid it, the smartest thing to do is prepare yourself and your organization.  Use these suggestions to handle the transition as smoothly as possible and come out stronger on the other side:

Conduct an exit interview to learn why the employee is leaving. Did he leave for more money?  Better benefits?  A position with more responsibility?  Or, was there something about your corporate culture that drove him away?  Whatever the reason, you should try to find out by conducting a structured exit interview.  Most employees will provide honest feedback when they leave an organization – so take advantage of the opportunity to find out if there’s anything your company could’ve/should’ve done differently.  Uncovering the real reason(s) a key employee quits may help you prevent the loss of another.

Approach the change with the right mindset. The saying, “when one door closes another door opens” provides a constructive way to approach the loss of a key employee.  Instead of focusing solely on what’s gone, shift your focus to what is now possible.  While it will undoubtedly be difficult to fill the void he’s left, you must think about how your business could improve by replacing him.  Your next hire may provide new skills, a fresh perspective or great business connections.

Address the well-being of those left behind. When a key employee leaves, his departure may affect supervisors, co-workers, subordinates and/or valued clients.  Make sure you clearly communicate why the employee is leaving and find out what kind of impact this will have on those left behind.  Demonstrating your concern for everyone who is affected will help you come together as a team and work together toward a solution.

Evaluate the organization’s or department’s structure. When someone leaves, it’s logical to assume that you must immediately hire a replacement.  But before you post the position, take a step back.  Examine the current company structure to see if you really need to hire another person.  Could responsibilities be shifted?  Could you promote someone from within and hire a less expensive employee?  Consider all your options to be sure you’re making the right choice for your company’s current and future needs.

Use a multi-faceted recruiting approach. If you decide that you need to replace the employee, but you can’t fill the position internally, attack the candidate search on multiple fronts.  In addition to sifting through old résumés, soliciting referrals and posting the position online, consider working with a staffing or recruiting service.  These trained specialists can shorten your time-to-hire, present you with only the most qualified candidates and free you to focus on keeping your business running smoothly during what can be a difficult transition.

Plan Now for Future Turnover – Preparation is Essential

Instead of managing in fear of losing a key employee, build a stronger, more flexible team that’s ready to weather the turbulence of turnover:

Identify who your most essential employees are. Examine your staff members’ roles and contributions to your company.  Whom would you be devastated to lose?  Make a short list of your key staff and use this as a starting point for your turnover preparation efforts.

Groom future replacements. For each of the key staff members you’ve named, identify a potential replacement.  Obviously, this person may not currently be the ideal candidate for the job, but that’s okay.  Figure out what skills and experience he lacks to assume the position and start training him.  While cross-training is time consuming, it will be well worth the investment.  If one of your top employees departs abruptly, you will at least have a stop-gap replacement while you search for a permanent one.

Guard against knowledge loss. Do your key employees keep essential information stored in their heads?  Are there any organizational processes that only a single employee knows how to complete?  If so, your company is at risk.  To minimize the effects of knowledge loss, start by identifying the knowledge at risk.   Develop a knowledge management program to document and share vital information – so that it doesn’t leave the company along with a key employee.

Keep the lines of communication open. Encourage employees to come to you when they’re frustrated.  Ask them to tell you if they find out someone is interviewing with another company.  Give your staff opportunities to voice questions or concerns.  If you keep your finger on the pulse of your organization, and address small problems before they become big ones, you’re more likely to retain your best employees.

Maintain a relationship with a staffing/recruiting firm. When an employee leaves abruptly, you simply may not have the time or resources to locate a suitable replacement on your own.  In this case, you may benefit from the services of a staffing or recruitment firm.  These trained professionals can provide you with immediate access to candidates with the skills, experience and intangibles required to step in and be immediately productive.

Staffing services and recruiters can provide the most responsive service – and create the best matches – when they know your business well.  Don’t wait until you have a hiring crisis to develop a relationship.  Invite a representative in to meet your key staff, tour your location and learn about your organization.  Then, should a need arise, your staffing/recruiting partner will be prepared to deliver the right candidates in a timely manner.

Are you in danger of losing a key employee?  Don’t be the last to know.  Familiarize yourself with these warning signs that an employee may be looking for greener pastures.