It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that your star employees and important partners will be in your business forever. Unfortunately, the day may come when they decide to retire or leave the business for other opportunities—and the news may come when you least expect it. How you handle the next steps may affect your future professional relationship, the survival of your business, and even the perceptions of your other employees.

Fortunately, there are a few straightforward steps you can take to make sure the next few months go as smoothly as possible.

Consider Alternatives

First, have a frank conversation with your employee about alternatives to full-time retirement. They may be open to staying on as a part-time employee, at least for the next several months, or may be open to consulting on a part-time basis. If you can keep them on your staff, even in a limited capacity, you can buy yourself more time to reorganize things and hire someone to replace them. As long as your relationship with the employee is on good terms, they should be open to helping you out in at least some ways.

Announce the Departure

As soon as you find out about the departure, it’s a good idea to announce it—at least to the employees it’s going to affect the most. You may have a fear that this will trigger a cascade of departures, especially if the employee is particularly well-liked, but early disclosure will help you proactively prevent these potential consequences, and will give employees more time to prepare their own roles and responsibilities for the future.

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Recognize the Employee’s Work

It’s also a good idea to take the time to recognize the employee’s work and contributions while they were employed in your organization. Presenting them with a unique retirement gift and hosting a going-away party are two ways to show your appreciation; it will help you end the professional relationship on good terms, and will show your other employees the value you place on hard work and dedication.

Run a Position Audit

Before your employee leaves for good, take some time to go over their position and determine what their key responsibilities were—even if you think you know. This will help you get a high-level perspective on the roles that will genuinely need replacing, and will give you the details you need to write up a job description when the time comes to post one.

Begin Prep Work for a Smooth Transition

From there, you can start laying the groundwork to support a smooth transition:

  • Cross train. Ask your employee to train some of your other employees on their most important responsibilities. If you can, get multiple people to learn each new skill or responsibility; this will protect you in the future against other unexpected departures. Knowledge silos have the potential to significantly weaken your business, so try to distribute that knowledge as much as possible.
  • Take the time to formally document the tasks your employee is responsible for, and the processes they used to accomplish them. Hands-on training is almost always superior to learning from a document, but documentation has a longer shelf life; if there’s ever a question, you can always turn to the documentation to answer it.
  • Establish succession plans. While you’re in the mindset of organizational change, determine a formal succession plan, at least in the interim, for your other departments. If you’re incapacitated, who would take over for you, and how would they do it? What if one of your other star employees leaves? Is there someone else who can step up with relatively short notice?
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Start Looking for a Replacement

If you thought of your previous employee or partner as “irreplaceable,” the thought of replacing them can be dreadfully intimidating. However, if you want the business to keep moving forward, you’ll have to fill the position, one way or another. If your cross-training is successful, you may be able to promote someone from within to fill the role, or divide the responsibilities among a group of people. Otherwise, you’ll need to write up a job description and start recruiting.

If the job is particularly complicated or intensive, you may need to consider multiple people to handle those responsibilities—at least in the interim. Remember, you can always adjust your approach if you find it’s not working, as long as you have someone to cover the gaps in the meantime.

If you follow these steps, and are flexible enough to consider new alternatives, you should be able to protect your business from any employee departure. That doesn’t mean things will be easy or be resolved quickly, but it does mean you have a path forward.

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