Do you personally know someone separated from a significant other who, when they start a new relationship, keeps talking about and referring to experiences with their ex?

When a key employee resigns from a company, often the same thing happens. The company hires a new person for the job, yet while onboarding the new hire, the trainers keep referring to the previous person in that role—how they communicated, documented, and performed tasks—even if it was how the company required it and not specific to the past individual at all.

In our personal and business lives, ill will is likely not intended. It is natural for individuals to refer to the familiar and to another person when we have emotional ties with them; not recognizing that the mention of that person during a dating or onboarding conversation may do more harm than good in building a new relationship.

When called to fill a vacancy after a key employee gives notice, after giving my commiserations, I suggest that prior to our meeting to fill the vacancy, they do a simple outline of what the departing employee was responsible for. In addition, I ask them to think about any area that the departing team member could have been more proficient in or with or if there is anything they would like to add to the role moving forward.

Often compromises and accommodations have been made over the years to assist the departing individual because they satisfactorily did the job and were genuinely accepted in the role by those who worked with them, including the boss. We consistently hear requests that include someone who has stayed up to date with technology, may have a particular degree, license, or certification, or was simply better at collaborating with other team members. Quite often, we see that a workaround has been created for the individual they are mourning the resignation of, and instead of seeing it as an opportunity to move forward, they are blinded by the agony of the hiring, onboarding, and building a new relationship.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.” Often companies botch the new beginning by not mastering the art of ending the past relationship.

What are a few tips to help with the new beginning?

  1. Set clear expectations in writing for the new employee’s success prior to their first day. Doing so provides a measurement tool to refer to as agreed upon if things do not appear to be progressing as expected.
  2. Schedule planned one-on-one time with the new hire a minimum of once a week for one hour to build the relationship. This time should be free from interruption and just a “how are you and how is everything going?” We call this the weekly date, and you know what they say about continuing to date after you are married. It will be painful at first because it would be so much easier if you weren’t having to start again to begin with.
  3. Remember that communication to understand each other—and for them to learn the company and the role—takes time and requires intentional listening and clarification from both sides. It is possible you and your former employee practically completed each other’s sentences. The part we all forget is that it did not happen instantly when we met them either. Communication develops with time.
  4. When discussing how you wish things to be done, do so by referring to how you do it at XYZ Company or, as an owner, what you expect to see or hear and the results you are seeking. Refrain from saying how the former employee did something. Bringing the past employee’s name into the dialogue when referring to how you like something done is irrelevant. The goal is to communicate how you want it done, no matter who is responsible for doing it. It is the same with communication. If a call every time they change locations is what you are used to, then request the new hire does the same without saying, “Bob always called me when he was changing locations.” State, as an example, “Would you kindly give me a call when you are changing locations as there are items I wish to make you aware of between stops.”
  5. In the construction industry, we are trained to walk on a jobsite and see what is wrong. The best leaders then sandwich positives around the corrective. When onboarding a new employee, 100% focus on what the new employee is doing well and build on the good; don’t point out what is going wrong in the moment unless it is critical to the project or people they are leading. Use your recap time (in private) to discuss how you would like things to be done differently than what you observed.
  6. The new employee is not going to do things exactly like the person who was there previously because they are two different people. Even if they say the same words to you, they will sound different. Focus 100% on the result, which includes how well they manage people, processes, and the projects assigned to them. Monitor and communicate privately to adjust. If applicable, demonstrate by showing.
  7. Formulate your own opinion (your own relationship) regarding this new hire. Others will be adjusting to the change and may even have wanted the position themselves and were not chosen. Verify all talk with proof unless you want to be starting over again. The new hire must be able to trust you also.
  8. Refrain from discussing the new hire with the person who departed if they are still in relation with you. Often, although they wanted out they aren’t necessarily focused on the other person’s success. This is especially true if they are still assisting after leaving and not 100% succeeding at their new place of employment. Don’t be the ex who hopes they come back and it will be the same or better. It rarely is without the same effort it takes to build a new relationship.

Divorce in the workplace, amicable or not, especially for key management roles or long-term employees who were a cultural and professional fit for your organization, is difficult. Employers face this challenge more than ever, with key individuals breaking out on their own or being offered compensation or flexible working terms that may not be matched.

Yes, if this happened to you, there are big shoes to fill. Once you select your new hire, it is imperative to remember that they chose you, too, and expect you to focus on their success despite your loss. If you don’t, I assure you that you will fail the new hire, and not necessarily because they weren’t the right match. It could be because your focus was on how easy it was to love the ex, and you forgot they didn’t know you before they knew you either—a relationship is built in time.

To the Right Focus to Fill Departing Big Shoes,

Suzanne Breistol


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