Employee departures are never easy, voluntary or not. But, for small businesses, the loss of an employee may represent a big percentage of the company’s entire workforce, which means smaller employers face unique challenges when an employee quits unexpectedly.
Since most U.S. workers are employed “at will,” employers may fire an employee for any legal reason at any time. Similarly, employees are not required by law to give notice before leaving a position unless they signed a contract stating otherwise.
Country music band Blackhawk may have summed up the unexpected employee exit in the best way possible:
No long explanation. No reconciliation. No let’s-talk-it-over number I can call. Goodbye says it all.
Even so, most people give their bosses one or two weeks’ notice before they quit. Employees who stop showing up, walk out on the job, or announce that “today is my last day” may do so because they have conflicts with co-workers, another job offer with an immediate start date, a sudden illness or other reasons for their abrupt departures. Regardless of the rationale, employees who unexpectedly walk away from their jobs put their employers in a difficult position.
What to Do When An Employee Quits Without Notice
To best manage the situation when an employee quits without notice:
- Conduct an exit interview, if at all possible, to try to ascertain why the employee is leaving suddenly. Sometimes, particularly if the reason is personal, rather than an issue with the company, the employee will be willing to participate in an exit interview after the fact. Understanding why the employee left could reveal opportunities for workplace improvements that may reduce the likelihood of future employee exoduses without notice, while boosting morale and productivity. It’s also important to glean details from departing employees about the status of their projects.
- Mitigate office disruption by reassuring remaining employees – especially those directly affected – that you will immediately put measures in place to help manage workloads and fill the vacated position.
- Transfer the departing employee’s responsibilities to other team members as quickly as possible or arrange contract or freelance help to ensure the former employee’s work is covered without being overly burdensome to your remaining staff.
- If applicable, immediately begin implementing related succession plans.
- Remain unemotional. Sudden employee departures cause business hardships and personal frustrations for business owners but guard against taking the exit personally or retaliating in any way. Some retaliatory actions, like attempting to withhold a final paycheck, are illegal, while others are simply unprofessional.
Company leaders should prepare for the possibility that an employee may suddenly leave the company. It doesn’t happen often, but if you find yourself having to handle the aftermath of such an event, you’ll be glad you planned ahead. Consider creating a checklist that outlines the steps you can take to minimize the operational and emotional impact of unexpected employee exits. Work with your HR department or outsourced HR consulting firm to cover:
- Final paycheck and benefits.
- Letters of resignation (which you should request).
- Confidentiality or nondisclosure agreements that may be necessary.
- A form or other way to update or confirm the employee’s address, telephone number and emergency contact information so you can mail W2s, benefits statements and other notices to the correct address.
- Items employees should return, including badges, keys, passwords, corporate credit cards, laptops and other company property.