A High-Performing Employee Wants to Resign - Here's How to Make Them Stay

professional skills

Each year, companies spend big bucks to replace top performers who leave for greener pastures. Competitive rewards, growth opportunities, and a vibrant employee experience could stop them from jumping ship.

A Workforce on The Move


A key player in your company wants to resign for something better than what you offer. Better could mean lots of things: more money, a higher position, recognition, or even a closer relationship with a supervisor. But one thing's for sure: this top-notch worker is much too good to let go. You need to change his mind. The question is, can you?

This scenario is becoming more common for HR managers today, regardless of industry. Labor statistics in 2016 show that ''quits''—which also include involuntary departures—increased for the seventh year in a row. And Gallup reports that 51% of American workers and 60% of millennials admit they're watching for new opportunities.

These reports tell you, an HR manager, not only that the historically influx US workforce has grown more restless but that competition to retain star performers has intensified. We frequently hear about yet another Fortune 500 pouring millions of dollars into workplace perks designed to lure talent from your company to theirs.

Convincing a wayward employee to stay isn't going to be a cakewalk, but it's worth a try. Your HR training has taught you to manage for retention because talent drives profits. Plus, turnover disrupts your workforce's steady rhythm and carries costs that, depending on industry and the employee's position, could run into the tens of thousands.

These problems might be avoided if you had a script of responses ready to use when a star employee confides she's no longer happy with her current position. To help you create that script, we researched the most common reasons employees give for wanting to leave their jobs; then we spoke with a certified leadership expert for advice on how you might turn things around.

Make Salary and Rewards More Competitive

Offering higher pay is no doubt the first concession that pops into your mind when an employee wants to leave. Salary is a big part of any employee's job satisfaction, and data continue to back this up. Consider, for example, survey responses collected by Glassdoor and Gallup showing that salary consistently ranks among the top reasons employees give for wanting to move on. Besides, as an HR professional, you know that proper compensation is a key component of sound management.

smiling woman

If more money is all that your employee wants, you can likely wrap things up fast. ''Money is one of the easiest fixes,'' said certified career coach and founder of McCourt Leadership Group, Elizabeth McCourt. McCourt suggests you base a counteroffer on two things: the market rate for similar positions and your company's salary philosophy. ''Are you a firm that pays under, over or just in line with the market rate?''

But, like many experts, McCourt cautioned that an employee bent on resigning might not be rocked from her decision simply with the promise of earning more. ''If there are other reasons (and there often are) then money won't be enough to keep someone,'' she told us. That's when you look for perks beyond salary—free parking, loaner cars, extra time off, even free food—that make up a total rewards package. These perks should be open only to employees who consistently outperform and prevailing wisdom says there's nothing unfair about tailoring rewards to individual performance.

If these perks aren't already part of the company's rewards, then HR should recommend leaders revise that policy, said McCourt. ''It boils down to the question—what kind of environment are we striving for and how do we incentivize our employees?''

Support Professional and Personal Growth

It's practically indisputable: offering workers a shot at higher positions in your company is a key employee motivator. Conversely, when growth opportunities don't exist, employees head for the door. This is known as job stagnation and it was a main reason behind the 5,000 job transitions Glassdoor analyzed for its 2017 study, ''Why Do Workers Quit?''

Just as telling is a report by Gallup that to find a better job, 91% of employees said they had to switch companies. Is this the case at your company? If not, make sure employees know they can move up the ladder so they don't look elsewhere, especially when they don't need to.

Employee development

That was the situation Elena Bajic, founder and CEO of Ivy Exec, found herself in when a great employee left in search of career growth. Bajic wrote a blog post explaining how miscommunication about her company's growth opportunities made her lose star talent. ''We shared an 'Ah ha!' moment when we realized we'd both made a mistake: she hadn't shared her career aspirations with us, and we hadn't made it clear enough that it's OK to have a two way dialog about career goals.''

But what if a better position isn't available to the employee who wants to resign? What if, for example, you're dealing with a top legal secretary who has no intention of becoming a lawyer but who nevertheless finds typing letters, setting appointments, and filling out travel expense forms to be uninspiring?

If that's the case, McCourt recommends that you instead focus on the employee's personal development within her current role. ''Give them opportunities to get better at their jobs,'' she said. You might train the employee to learn new software that can eliminate tedious tasks. Or, allow her to attend workshops where employees in the same position develop new skills.

Commit to A More Positive Employee Experience

A company's culture - its values, mission, and commitment to employee engagement - has risen to the top of many employee wish lists today. Research reported in 2017 by SHRM found large numbers of respondents admitting that job satisfaction hinges on the level of respect employers show. Put simply, a positive culture translates into retention and profits.

But how does culture factor into your conversation with a top performer who's contemplating a job transition? Is it realistic for you to promise that in return for her staying, you'll work to improve the culture?

Actually, the approach wouldn't be so far-fetched, as long as you considered the employee's situation and offered to make specific improvements. Alan Hall, author and entrepreneur, draws on his forty years' experience as CEO to explain in a Forbes article how such a conversation might go. Hall suggested asking the employee, ''What does it take to engage you?'' Among the most likely answers, he said, will be respect and considerate treatment by the company. He went on to describe a more desirable employee experience that could eliminate the negativity talented workers abhor.


You can turn Hall's advice into practical solutions. For example, tell a disgruntled employee the steps HR can take to stamp out a counterculture of mean-spirited gossip that's causing tension in her team. If the employee confides that she's being bullied, you can reassure her that HR will investigate any episodes and enforce its zero-tolerance policy for such behavior.

Reassess Management Styles

Closely tied to its culture is the quality of a company's managers. To understand just how big a role management plays in employee job satisfaction, consider that high-performing employees will do what many wish didn't exist—job hunt—if it saves them from facing a bad manager each day.

For her Inc. article on what makes great employees resign, Elle Kaplan, CEO of Lexicon Capital Management, said overbearing managers often top the list of reasons. Such managers don't encourage workers to develop new skills or take on bigger challenges. They don't inspire passion toward work or recognize achievement.

When one of your best workers wants to call it quits over an ungrateful micro-manager, offer to find solutions. But first, read Liz Ryan's advice published in Forbes. Ryan's theory is that good employees quit when an ''invisible, impermeable wall'' has developed between them and immediate supervisors, preventing managers from reading the signs of employee frustration right under their nose. The ''wall'', explains Ryan, symbolizes management's lack of interest in employee feedback. It allows managers to trigger an employee's departure by doing things such as not giving a salary increase or a key project they'd promised.

For the situation at hand, you can empathize with an employee who feels slighted. Suggest a sit-down with her and the manager to hammer out a short-term agreement. Then, for the long-term, initiate a company-wide management re-training program. Teach managers how to form positive relationships with their teams based on reciprocal trust.

Emphasize how they can tailor their management style to the needs of high-performing employees who:

  • yearn to master more complex assignments,
  • want to own their work, and
  • need to feel part of the company's successes.

top performer

Final Thoughts

Bear in mind that not everyone agrees it's possible to make an outbound employee stay. Suzanne Lucas, also known as the ''Evil HR Lady,'' is one of them. ''Because here's the reality,'' Lucas explained in Inc., ''When your employee starts looking for a new job, you've already lost her...''

If Lucas is right, then your goal should be to find out about a top performer's dissatisfaction before it's too late. Perhaps there's time to fix a thorny situation or coax the employee to re-connect with the company, avoiding an unnecessary resignation.

That theory is behind SHRM's three-pronged employee retention strategy known as ''re-recruit, re-energize and re-engage.'' SHRM recommends using HR metrics to spot a top performer who becomes disengaged from her work but hasn't started looking for other opportunities. It's a proactive mindset based on the common HR principle that retaining top talent is more cost effective than trying to replace it. It's also grounded in data that show the least-engaged workers as those most likely to quit.

At a time when many factors are working against employee retention, you can help stem the tide of resignations at your company by persuading rock star talent you still care about their needs and desires. ''The bottom line,'' says McCourt, ''is to make a business environment that people want to stay and thrive (in).''

By Michele Vrouvas
December 2017
professional skills employee engagement

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