Offboarding: the neglected child in the talent management family

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Me: “How does your organization handle offboarding?”
HR client: “Sorry, you mean onboarding, right?”
Me: “No, I was wondering how you approach offboarding here?”
HR client: “Oh, we cover that with an exit interview…if there’s time.”

Offboarding is the neglected child in how most organizations approach their talent. The enthusiastic warm welcome that greets employees upon their arrival into an organization often disappears when they decide to move on.

Truth be told, I didn’t think much about offboarding until I was a couple of jobs into my career. I went from thinking: “I guess this is how it’s done,” to “This is so how it should be done!” to “This is so how it should not be done,” and so on.

When it came to my time spent in HR and as an organizational development consultant, it was included on the talent management framework we referred to, but never really considered.

These thoughtful actions and sentiments are not the sole responsibility of HR to perform.

It was only through coaching clients that its importance really started to resonate for me. How someone was offboarded comes up a lot in coaching conversations. It surfaces even if that person has successfully moved on from a negative experience, and it continues to come up years, many years after the actual event itself.

Why is that? According to Matt Wilson, professor of neurobiology at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, the amygdala in our brain gets activated when we experience strong emotions, especially negative ones; this amygdala influences our memory system, especially our hippocampus, which plays a critical role in how easily we can access an event from memory and how well we remember it.

In addition, Stanford University professor Clifford Ivar Nass found that negative emotions tied to events typically entails more processing of information in our brains, thus causing us to ruminate on them more and use stronger words to describe them, than more positive experiences.

I’ve now seen onboarding, heard about it, and experienced it enough times to know that there is a good way to do it and there is a poor way to do it. And that it matters.

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From a business perspective, it matters to your brand, and in turn your ability to recruit the diverse, top-notch talent that you need to succeed. The tech ecosystem in Canada is a very cozy community where most connections are one, at most, two degrees from one another. If your offboarding approach is non-existent or a negative experience for folks, then there’s a strong likelihood that memory will surface and be passed along to potential candidates who reach out to find out what it’s really like to work at ‘X’.

It not only matters to securing potential new talent, but also the ‘boomerang employees’ who are expected to become a larger trend as the competition for high caliber talent further heats up in tech. Boomerang employees are traditionally referred to as those who return to their original employer, and they are no longer the taboo they used to be.

If your offboarding approach is non-existent or a negative experience for folks, then there’s a strong likelihood that memory will surface and be passed along.

Not only will boomerang employees become a larger talent norm, I believe we’ll see more of what I’ve dubbed ‘boomerang kinfolk,’ those folks who may not necessarily return to your company again, but can play a pivotal role in your future success. When chatting about offboarding with individuals, I’ve occasionally heard: “Oh well, that person was a low performer here so offboarding them well really shouldn’t matter.” It does matter, as that particular individual may go on to thrive in their next role, or they may have found that future startup that offers the add-on you need or want. You never know.

So what does good offboarding look like? For starters, it is about much more than an exit interview or a checklist of disconnecting a departing employee from company software. It really has less to do with the doing part (and money, which is often an excuse brought up) than it ultimately is about how you make them feel. Do they suddenly feel like a persona non grata after news of their departure is announced? Do they continue to be and feel included in the team as their departure date approaches? Are they recognized and rewarded for effective knowledge transfer?

Naturally, there are some actions that do equate to effective offboarding. Has anyone expressed to them what they did well here and the positive impact they had on the organization’s success? Does someone take the time to walk that employee to the door, thank them, and wish them well on their last day?

These thoughtful actions and sentiments are not the sole responsibility of HR to perform. Rather, it is HR’s role to set the tone that aligns with company culture, and in turn to educate leaders on what is expected of them and their teams for successful offboarding. These leaders and team members can then run with it, as they know best what will resonate and delight the departing employee.

Maya Angelou was right: people may forget what you said and did, but they will never forget how you made them feel, including when they cross your organization’s threshold for the final time. How can you enhance this experience for them?

Photo via Unsplash.

Ritva Nosov

Ritva Nosov

Ritva Nosov is an Organizational Development professional who optimizes organizational design, talent management practices and talent development strategies to meet current and future business needs. She has extensive experience in assessment, design and development, facilitation, consulting and coaching across a range of people management areas, with a specialized focus on leadership development and cross-cultural workplace integration. She founded TalentEd Consulting to enable organizations and individuals to elevate themselves.