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Tech Careers / Tech Culture

Tech Works: a Guide to Humane Employee Offboarding

The tech industry invests loads in onboarding, but often overlooks employee offboarding as a valuable tool to ease transitions and be kinder to former teammates.
Apr 7th, 2023 9:11am by
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Editor’s note: Tech Works is a monthly column by longtime New Stack contributor Jennifer Riggins that explores workplace conditions, management ideas, career development and the tech job market as it affects the people who build and run the software the world relies on. We welcome your feedback, and ideas for future columns.

Tech layoffs continue to dominate our social media feeds. And, as several tech companies report record earnings, a lot of it feels egregious, senseless and arbitrary. While nobody likes goodbyes, there are better ways to go about it.

Losing a job can be brutal, but some companies are making it feel worse for workers than it needs to be. Heck, a lot of tech workers aren’t even sure if they’ve been laid off or if their Slack is just down. And this often public, very negative experience means those that survive the first cut quickly start shopping around.

No matter whose choice it is to leave, the tech industry really should be adopting a more humane employee offboarding process. Here’s some guidance — and some reasons why breaking up the right way matters.

Poor Offboarding Threatens Your Business

The 2022 State of Offboarding Process Automation Report by Oomnitza, a technology management platform, found that almost half of those surveyed didn’t have standardized employee offboarding automated workflows in place — or if they did, the senior-level IT professionals responding weren’t aware of them. This correlates with other key findings including:

  • 49% of organizations lost at least 5% of company-issued assets during offboarding.
  • 42% of organizations reported at least 5% instances of unauthorized access to Software as a Service and cloud resources after employee departure.

Tech companies were among the worst industries for digital and physical asset reclamation, at above 10% in both categories. This uncovers inherent data privacy, security and financial risks in not properly managing offboarding.

Yet, with all this in mind, tech companies still invest far more in onboarding than offboarding processes. Haphazard goodbyes can be equally damaging to your reputation.

While Big Tech layoffs still dominate headlines, the truth is, especially for more experienced, technical and all cybersecurity roles, tech talent is hard to find. In addition to it simply being the right thing to do, having a humane offboarding strategy can also help keep it from becoming even harder to recruit developers, engineers and architects.

When you offboard insensitively — no matter whose decision it is — you aren’t just losing domain and organizational knowledge. You’re putting your whole recruitment cycle at risk.

Employees who have a negative offboarding experience are more likely to post a bad review on sites like Glassdoor, according to Sam French, a human resources manager who now recruits HR personnel. They are also more likely to respond negatively when candidates reach out to check how former employees feel about your organization and its managers.

Those who have a bad goodbye can also be more inclined, French continued, to work with a competitor or lash out at former colleagues.

This is why he advocates for a more positive farewell, one that recognizes their contributions and wishes them good luck in the future.

HROnboard, an HR software provider, offers a useful offboarding checklist that includes technical steps – like recovering company property, like laptops, and offboarding from SaaS – and formally communicating the date of a last paycheck, as well as more thoughtful steps like offering letters of recommendation or references.

Thanking exiting employees is another important step not to be missed, both to end on good terms and to keep the rest of the team’s morale up.

Always remember, the tech industry changes so quickly, that a laid-off employee may be the right hire again in the future. In fact, 20% of Americans who left companies between 2020 and 2022 have already boomeranged back to rejoin.

There is opportunity in treating former employees with the warmth and pride that universities treat alumni. It can also lead to mutually beneficial partnerships, like when architect Aly Ibrahim amicably moved from Red Hat to Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Over a year later, he and his former teammates still reach out to each other with respective questions about Red Hat and AWS and collaborate over integrations between the two. Ibrahim has even been accepted to speak at this May’s Red Hat Summit, presenting a solution that connects Red Hat OpenShift on AWS (ROSA).

His former manager, Lisa Danzer, remains his mentor, he told The New Stack, advising him through a master’s degree and public speaking.

Said Ibrahim, “I guess what makes the relationship [with Red Hat] still positive is the openness.”

How to Fire Kindly (and Legally)

No doubt the worst part of any human resources representative or manager’s job is having to make staff cuts. This is why layoffs via press release should be avoided, and offboarding plans should be in place — even before they are needed. Nothing lasts forever.

“What can we amputate and the business still function?” asked Jessica Brown, partner at KJ Partners, attorney and employment law strategist. Comparing an organization to a human body, as Brown did when she spoke to The New Stack, makes sense, as both are complex, living organisms, and layoffs can feel abrupt and painful to all involved.

Especially in the knowledge worker economy, layoffs must be more strategic. But lately, a lot of mistakes have been made, leaving perplexed teammates suddenly locked out from offices and inboxes.

Brown has several long-term clients that didn’t lay anyone off during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — and those, she noted, were much more reasonably uncertain times.

“But what we’re seeing in tech is different,” she said. “People at the helm should have seen this coming. It was foreseeable, as opposed to a pandemic when no one knew it was coming.”

Indeed, Big Tech especially has spent the last few years overhiring, whether to keep talent from being scooped up by competitors or to pursue big bets like Meta’s now back-burnered metaverse investment.

“A lot of times, the layoffs happen in haste,” Brown observed. “Perhaps it’s not the case if you’re involved and making the choices, but it appears the companies rush.”

Case in point: Elon Musk’s abrupt layoffs at Twitter are still being held up in courts in Europe and California, where prior notice is required by law. Brown warned that no layoffs should happen without an understanding of the federal and state laws involved.

“If it’s a massive layoff, and they knew they could kind of plan for it, typically there’s a requirement of 60 or 45 days notice,” depending on the state, she advised, although there are exceptions for a proven fiscal or legal emergency.

It’s pretty standard to cut off internal communication access — like company email and Slack — when you fire someone, Brown said, to avoid the leaking of trade secrets or suddenly former employees lashing out at ex-colleagues. But this can leave the newly fired confused, with no way to get clarity.

Instead, when a bigger round of layoffs is imminent, with planned percentages of the workforce due to be cut, an all-hands meeting is a more transparent and humane way to go, she said, so people at least know what could be coming.

The Power of the Exit Interview

Ah, the exit interview. The most valuable, yet underutilized, tool in HR’s box. It can be a cathartic, reflexive process for those leaving an organization, while it’s a way for the organization and its managers to gain important intel – namely, why people are leaving. Because it is still much more expensive to recruit than retain.

You may assume that an employee who leaves voluntarily is simply seeking more money. They might be — and if so, that knowledge can give you a chance to consider if it’s worth negotiating, or, at the least, help you benchmark against your competition.

But the old adage rings true: Employees don’t leave companies, they leave bad managers.

Nothing slows down a release cycle like a toxic work environment, so you want to spot any red flags; exit interviews can help you do that. You may learn that you need to invest in management training, and re-teaming could be a good option to retain a valued employee.

Maybe the employee is leaving for other reasons, like to access more flexible work, or to gain training or experience in another role, tool or programming language. These are less expensive changes you could make to retain that employee.

An exit interview can be an informal conversation or an anonymous survey — give people the option of how they are most comfortable. Just make sure it’s run by an empathetic teammate. While the last few months of massive layoffs have reminded us that our job is not our family, it can still be a really emotional experience to leave.

If the soon-to-be former employee is up for it, see if they will write about the work they’ve done — this can be an invitation to update technical documentation or to offer a less formal reflection. It can help them organize their thoughts for a résumé and LinkedIn profile update, but also help clarify what their actual role was, what gaps they will be leaving, and what tools they need offboarding from.

This can also help facilitate knowledge transfer for their team — many of tech’s recently unemployed expressed frustration that they hadn’t finished a project or were worried they were leaving their colleagues high and dry.

An exit interview can offer a snapshot into what an organization is doing right — and wrong — right now.  When layoffs are done more strategically, even the exit interview can be a win-win.

How to Communicate with Staff Left Behind

Whether it’s an individual on a team or a portion of a company, after a layoff occurs, it’s important to rally everyone together — soon.

“If you don’t have that communication, everyone is in fear mode. And people don’t operate their best in fear that they’re going to lose their job every day,” Brown pointed out, advocating ideally for an in-person town hall.

Tell remaining colleagues why the job cuts happened, being as transparent as possible, while also apologizing, she continued. “Say, ‘We are hoping this is all of the layoffs that we have to do.’ But if you perceive more layoffs [coming], I think you have to say that. That way you are giving people, if they have the ability to get a new job, to go do that … versus scrambling to feed their families.”

If people choose to leave after their colleagues are laid off, the attrition can save on some more painful cuts and severance payouts later on. Plus, as discussed in the previous Tech Works column, giving a heads up about possible future cuts is especially important for employees on H-1B visas, so they can get ahead of that 60-day ticking clock.

It won’t be productive, Brown warned, to open that first meeting up to questions, but rather, keep it one-sided and informational. The message, she said, should be, “this is what’s happening, this is what to anticipate — to try to calm people down.”

Then make sure all managers are more informed to help answer inevitable questions. This is especially true, Brown said, “if their groups really are on the chopping block, I think they should know that. And they should be the ones answering the questions from their employees.”

Remaining teammates will likely ask questions about why some colleagues were cut while others kept on. Be direct and honest, while not talking about individuals, she advised.

Create an open line between managers and your HR team, who in turn should be advised by your company’s legal advisers. Help managers ease the company through this painful transition.

When in doubt about how to offboard employees more humanely, offer as much time and space as you can. Sometimes, it just takes a little effort and empathy to be more kind in these challenging times.

Just remember, no matter what, anything you do when offboarding employees and team members will likely not remain secret. Someone’s negative exit today can make tomorrow’s headlines.

Author’s note: If you’ve changed jobs, you have experienced offboarding. What worked for you or didn’t? Share at @TheNewStack and @JKRiggins.

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