Retaining an employee who\’s considering leaving

It’s no surprise that employee retention is a critical competitive differentiator. A company’s ability to hold on to its talent—especially in tight hiring markets—has profound ramifications for its ability to operate at a high level, without the disruptions that employee turnover brings. What can leaders do when faced with the prospect that one of their top performers may be thinking of leaving?


According to executive coach Gena Cox, if the employee has told you they are considering a change, ask them if they would be willing to chat so you can learn more about what they need. “Most employees are moving away from something, and your goal is to uncover what it will take to retain them, and if it’s realistic.” If you’ve never built a relationship with the employee, says Cox, “you’re toast.” Colleen Tucker, CHRO of biotech company Entasis Therapeutics, says that talking to the employee “about what’s next is crucial.”

According to growth strategist Amanda Gibson, if a company has a pattern of overburdening employees, not listening, and not keeping previous promises, that may erase some of the power you have as a manager. It certainly will if the person has experienced it directly, but also if the person regularly sees other people being treated in ways they don’t want to be treated. If a manager can’t say with certainty that an employee is actively engaged, there are probably conversations they aren’t having and should be to prevent the dreaded “I quit.”

Ask what would make them excited to stay

“It’s not only about identifying what’s wrong,” says executive coach, Rebecca Zucker, “it’s about painting a picture of what’s possible in the future.” There are lots of reasons why people leave and sometimes it’s also important to consider the reasons people join in the first place and their motivations when it comes to retaining them. 

Tucker conducted employee engagement and Great Place to Work surveys to get a handle on what attracted people to the company and to get a baseline of culture factors, benchmark her company against the Best Workplaces, and quickly identify actionable issues employees from lab-workers to C-suite executives. Gibson suggests asking your on-the-fence employee, “Is anything you have your eye on in the company that would fit your goals? If you can’t give it to them now, perhaps you can give them assignments that would get them closer.” If an employee is unclear of their goals, can the company work with them to help them find time and space to experiment within?

Take a holistic view

Reacting in the moment to an employee who plans to leave an organization is often too little too late. Taking a 360-degree view of employee needs and proactively addressing them is the most effective way to avoid defections. In Tucker’s case, she evaluated the competitiveness of her company’s compensation plan, putting into effect accelerated stock vesting and outright grants, as well as performance-based incentives for the executive team. She knew that there is a high demand for talent in the biotech industry, and employees can walk down the street and command a richer package. Tucker also facilitates a childcare discussion group for employees with childcare concerns. Recently one employee took a month of FMLA leave to care for an ill child. Had she not run this group, she might not have been aware of this employee’s acute need.

Embrace flexibility

A recent Harvard Business School study showed that most professionals have flourished in their jobs while working from home, and 81% either don’t want to go back to the office or would choose a hybrid schedule post-pandemic. Corporate leaders have to overcome their fear of what might be lost if they allow employees flexible work arrangements.

At Entasis, where lab workers usually work onsite full-time, Tucker arranged for them to go home when their experiments were complete or run their experiments on weekends when it was easier for some to arrange childcare. Hybrid schedules are the norm for the rest of the staff, who coordinate with their managers which days teams plan to be in the office. “As long as teams working a flexible schedule commit to regular meetings and consistent communication, then collaboration will not be compromised,” says Tucker. All team members need to maintain contact, keep tabs on projects, and respond to messages and phone calls.

Be careful how you treat employees on the way out

Not every valued employee who has decided to leave can be saved, says Tucker. “One of our employees had just completed a Phase- 3 clinical trial, and her goal was to run another one in the next six months. That was not part of our company’s plan, and I let her know that. Being honest was in her best interests even though knowing that we were going to lose her was hard.”

“How you treat an employee on the way out can have a significant impact and influence on the team still there,” says M&A strategist Jennifer Fondrevay. “If the person leaving was toxic and never satisfied, there will be relief. If the person was a key player, it can raise questions about why they would leave. What did they know? And if you treat a person who was a key player poorly or dismissively on their way out, it can backfire, as the team remaining wonders how good a leader you are.”