Exits have made their way to Page 1 these days. Not just the newspapers, 24-hour news channels are also full of them.

April, we knew, always came with largesse. Increment packages are announced (and it’s back to the pre-meltdown headlines of “India tops in projected salary increases") and promotions are the cynosure of all eyes. But the quarter also brings increased attrition. The triggers are many—the angst of a perceived exclusion from inner circles, the relief in knowing that a hefty bonus that was due has been banked….etcetera, etcetera.

But why attrition happens is not the focus of this column. Rather, how companies process attrition is. How do they treat the swelling ranks of “separating" employees?

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Attraction and attrition, separated only by a few alphabets, are accorded very different treatments by organizations. One, a favoured child, is where HR heads make their mark and earn their spurs. It grabs reams of newsprint, investor mindshare and management time. Companies invest significantly to ensure that their recruitment process runs like a well-oiled machine. Great care is taken to create an “Aha" experience for candidates.

The recruitment experience is religiously tracked, the separation process, almost never. Very much the poorer cousin, it is relegated to the background, mentioned only as an afterthought in any HR process review.

In reality, it is the way a company handles separation that shows the true character of the organization. Significant goodwill is gained in making the exit smooth and tension-free for the employee. The increasing number of exits makes this population an important source of goodwill, or ill-will, ambassadors and of course, potential future hires. An otherwise engaged employee once told me that he decided to leave the organization the day he saw his colleague’s harrowing exit experience. Which is why the ostrich policy companies adopt in dealing with separating employees and their travails is indeed surprising.

Chain of command

It, of course, starts with the boss. Once a separation is a fait accompli, it is interesting to note the reactions. Some classic negative prototypes come to mind.

The Pernickety Boss is normally quite chilled out and blasé about what subordinates do. But come a resignation and he is suddenly all focus and fury, insisting on the most detailed documentation and knowledge transfer in history. Night outs at work in the weeks preceding the exit are the norm and unreasonable demands on the hapless employee almost mandatory. “My successor deferred his joining date at the last minute. And without so much as a by-your-leave, I was forced to delay my exit and renege on my commitment," moaned a departing manager.

The Martyr Boss walks around with a “how could you do this to me?" written all over him. Resignation submitted, the employee transforms overnight from apple of the eye to opportunistic mercenary. The stance is one of reproach, emotional blackmail and in some cases, a cold shoulder. Someone recounted wistfully how his once doting boss looked right through him in the parking lot after he had submitted his resignation.

The Boss in Denialis tough to handle. “Resignation? What’s that?", seems to be his stance. Appeals for an acknowledgement or a relieving date are met with stoic silence. “When my emails went unanswered, I walked into his room to submit my written resignation. There was no response—only the opening of a drawer and the pushing of the envelope in. This meant no acceptance letter, no timelines for exit and no possible commitments to my new organization. I was in limbo and got to wondering if I had actually submitted my resignation or was just hallucinating," recounts a manager.

The Vengeful Boss raises hell, literally. “I will show you what I can do to you" threats and invectives are the norm. The act of resigning is likened to the gravest sin. One boss gave a strict “Or Else" kind of warning to the exiting employee to stop socializing with colleagues at work. The directive covered canteen lunches, coffee breaks and water-cooler chats. Co-workers and subordinates were ordered to shun the departing employee. And in one act of total vengeance, suppliers to the organization were instructed not to work for the “pariah" in his new avatar.

In all these cases, the employee goes through trauma and pain— emotions which colour his memory of the organization.

Blessed then is the Gracious Boss, who objectively assesses the situation, accepts the resignation as reality and handles the situation with equanimity and grace. He endeavours to give the employee a healthy separation experience and keeps the door open for a possible rehire at a later date. One of the most popular leaders I have seen is charm and sensitivity personified with high-calibre exiting employees. His philosophy is simple: “Today’s ‘attritioner’ is tomorrow’s potential hire. And if not that, at least a great brand ambassador; a potential secret weapon in the converting of fence-sitter candidates into solid Joins. "

Other chinks in the chain

The boss of course is only one piece of the puzzle. The attrition process itself is the other. The bureaucracy and tedium is in most cases irksome. In the quest for the all-important “No dues certificate", the dignity of the exiting employee becomes a casualty. Mails to the departments concerned go unanswered; the buck is passed from one to the other, and exit interviews end up being disinterested tick-box interventions. An executive who had clocked several years at a firm recounted his experience with pathos. “It was really humiliating to go from desk to desk, 18 at the last count, to get the appropriate squiggles on my clearance certificate. I call this the ‘humbling clearance march’. And as regards the exit interview, the disinterest shown by the interviewer made it the most pointless exercise I have ever undergone," he says.

Organizations that are focused on creating a positive experience and wise enough to realize the power of a positive brand among its employee alumni are quick to embrace some key practices. These could range from an “employee dignity protecting" e-separation portal, to designated HR SPoCs (single points of contact) who can be approached for separation related queries, strict Service Level Agreements (SLAs) from the departments concerned and the soliciting of frank feedback from the exiting employee without fear of retribution.

Add to that a warm handshake and a gracious farewell note. A senior employee once told me of the heartbreak he experienced at the company’s callous attitude on his last day at work. He did not even merit a fond send-off by his team—his successor chose that exact time to call a departmental meeting.

So fare them well, make their journey out of the organization comfortable and wait to hear them sing paeans of praise to you. Who knows, the farewell may turn out to be adieu and you may soon welcome them back as Celebrated Rehires!

Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations. She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Technologies Ltd.

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