Mason professor explains why your offboarding process is important

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The Great Resignation continues with no end in sight, and virtually no industry spared. It is one of the most disruptive—perhaps even traumatic—events to hit the workplace in living memory. And most companies are woefully underprepared.

As George Mason University professor Sarah Wittman explained in a recent interview with, the usual offboarding process is rote: effectively a checklist.

"It tends to be standard and efficient,” said Wittman, an assistant professor of management in Mason’s School of Business. “You're not treating these transitions as the big things that they are."

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Sarah Wittman. Photo provided

Wittman said that with so many organization-focused priorities, the process is often so perfunctory and one-sided that even the basic formality of the exit interview is skipped.

But Wittman believes that it isn’t because managers are indifferent. Quite the opposite: the coldness of the process many times belies strong suppressed feelings of betrayal, bewilderment and abandonment, particularly in cases where employees are leaving voluntarily. Where the severance has been an organizational—not employee-led—decision, the coldness may be part of a defensive posture against the prospect of wrongful dismissal lawsuits.

Wittman warns that this approach to off-boarding is extremely short-sighted.

“Resignees don’t disappear into thin air after their last day of service,” she said. “Presumably, they are heading to another organization, meaning the continuation of relationships can allow for immense networking. The employee of today is potentially a competitor, a client, a supplier, or maybe even a regulator tomorrow.”

Bad offboarding can also send negative signals to employees left behind, who may be wondering “whether anyone actually believes all of those HR messages that we get that our people are important… Do people stop being important as people as they are on their way out?”

Wittman said this could be one explanation for so-called “turnover contagion,” or a resignation domino effect.

- Ultimately, the quality of a company’s offboarding is a reflection on corporate culture and the emotional intelligence of its leadership. Wittman suggests three steps every company can take that would be a huge improvement over the usual rote exercise.Pre-planning is useful because it “does remove a lot of those emotional elements and the time aspect” that initially deter employers from smooth offboarding processes. Wittman recommends that managers sit down and think “ideally, what I would like my relationship with that employee to look like from an organizational perspective five days from now, five months from now, five years from now,” and using this relational orientation to guide the process.

- Another technique Wittman suggests is creating alumni networks to stay connected with ex-employees and current employees. She states that companies that have created these networks have “created a powerful synergistic approach” to offboarding. Consulting companies, like McKinsey & Co., have wholeheartedly embraced the turnover model, due to the nature of their industry. Similar to universities, they run employee alumni programs so ex-colleagues can stay connected and maintain professional relationships that could be beneficial in the future. Some companies even invite ex-employees to employee get-togethers, creating a system where interactions can be continued.

- The last offboarding improvement tactic Wittman suggests is finding opportunities for potential ongoing collaborations. These allow companies to preserve “the social capital that you in part have helped build. And you keep a name for yourself and build goodwill in the process.” For example, Google encourages and facilitates alumni and current employees’ work together on projects and ideas.

As offboarding is inevitable in today’s working climate, Wittman suggests companies “treat an employee’s departure as a joyous event—a graduation rather than a funeral,” choosing to celebrate an employee’s transition to new positions and opportunities.