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Steps to take when a superstar employee doesn’t return

Amid the current COVID-19 pandemic, many dealers have had to lay off or furlough employees. If you’re one of them, hopefully you took steps to encourage their return once the stay-at-home orders began to ease. Even so, there’s a chance you may have a star employee who decides not to return.

Losing a stellar team member, regardless of the circumstances, can leave you with a range of emotions and a lot of questions. Here are a few strategies for how to handle the situation—and how to learn for future recruiting and hiring success.

1. Do damage control

Did you handle the conversation poorly? If so, take steps to fix the damage so you’re not burning bridges. Apologize, in person, by phone, or even by email. Use “I” statements and accept ownership of your response and that you’re not proud of how you handled it. It doesn’t need to be a long apology, just something to get the conversation started and to begin repairing the relationship.

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2. Learn why they’re not returning 

In some cases, the reasons may be cut-and-dried: They found a new job after they were laid off, and they’re enjoying it. If not, it may be helpful for your future hiring to learn why they decided not to return. It may be simply because they have a bad taste in their mouth from being laid off. Or it may be because they were already thinking about leaving and seized the opportunity to do so. Try to conduct an exit interview to uncover reasons that might impact your ability to hire and retain other employees.

Here are some questions to ask when your employee resigns or lets you know they won’t be returning:

  • What are your plans?
  • Would you be willing to share “why” we lost you? What made the new opportunity more appealing than returning to work for us?
  • What could/should we have done or tried to do that would have stopped us from losing you?
  • If you could change anything about your role or our company, what would it be?
  • Were you satisfied with the way you were managed?
  • Would you consider coming back?

3. Communicate clearly and always show concern

Communication is more important than ever with the uncertainty about COVID-19 and the economy. Communicate as clearly and as consistently as you can with everyone who is impacted by the departure inside and outside the company. Not just the basic “John is no longer with the company,” but communicate the value the individual had, the fact that they will be missed, and that you have a plan to fill the gap they’re leaving. The intention is to address the loss and then share the path forward.

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4. Seize the opportunity to create more clarity around the departing employee’s role

Chances are your business has changed since this person took the job. Instead of simply dusting off an old job description and scrambling to hire, look at the current business needs and hire for those. In previous columns, I’ve stressed that job searches should start with “getting clear.” By determining, ahead of time, whether and why you need this role, what its responsibilities will be, and what results you expect from the new hire, you can create a stronger job description that sets expectations and objectives clearly upfront.

The unexpected departure of a great employee is a blow to any company. Take a deep breath and lead with your head rather than your heart.

Rikka Brandon, a recruiter in the LBM industry since 2001, is a building products recruiter with Building Gurus. Reach her at

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