What it Really Means When an Employee Threatens to Resign


A coaching client recently wrote me saying, “I’ve been struggling with what to do with people who either resign and recant or in subtle ways threaten to resign.”

… They continue, “My initial reaction is to want to find a replacement immediately— but then I realize that often these resignations are from passionate people who take their jobs seriously… Maybe the answer is: Passion is good. We should expect this type of pattern with potential superstars that we don’t treat well enough or who don’t feel like they are partners in the business. But the B players, who are replaceable, should be replaced. With B players, we should take their threats seriously and use their initiative to either break up or demand a change in their behavior.”

Another colleague, in an unconnected but related conversation, said this:

“I’ve come to realize that there are two reasons people threaten to quit. Some do it because they are fed up and can’t see a solution to their troubles. Others just want to be assured that you love them.”

Here’s my advice on this subject: Don’t ignore it, but don’t fall prey to a conversational trap either.

Start by acknowledging the threat by saying:

“It’s clear that you feel strongly about this situation, and I understand that you feel your resignation is in order. Let’s both consider the benefits and consequences of such an action and talk about it again first thing tomorrow morning.”

This kind of reply accomplishes your immediate goals:

  • Acknowledges that you heard the threat
  • Lets it be known that you care
  • Avoids a messy discussion while feelings are frayed
  • Demonstrates your intent to come to a resolution

It also gives you a chance to (1) decide how much and what kind of change you are willing to make to “save” this person and (2) prepare for the worst by coming up with an acceptable plan of action to deal with an abrupt and immediate resignation.

In the end you must remember, you can’t 10x your business with a 1x team.

When you get back together to talk, ask the employee if he or she has had a chance to think about what was said. If he or she has not, do not continue because things will probably go from bad to worse.

When an angry person says they haven’t reconsidered their position, what it probably means is that they’ve thought a lot about it— about how right they are and how wrong you are. There’s no point in pursuing the conversation at that point. By putting off the discussion to “give him time to think,” you’ll send a clear message: “If you want to get some benefit from this, you must consider it from several angles . . . not just your own injured perspective.”

Continue to postpone meetings until they come around. Sometimes, the problem will go away by itself. But if they do come back having “reconsidered” a bit, you will be ready and able to make progress. Begin the conversation by rephrasing, as closely and as neutrally as you can, their complaint. Ask them to acknowledge that your summary is correct.

At this point, there is a high probability that he or she will change their tune— at least somewhat. They’ll give you another, more reasoned statement of what they wants. This is a good time to thank them for thinking about it and say something else that is positive about them, a work habit, or talents. Next, tell them why you think he or she should stay or leave (depending on what you decided the night before).

Give them a chance to respond to your comments and proposals. The goal will be to come to an agreement on a new and better working situation (for both of you)— whatever that might be.

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If you agree that the best arrangement for both of you is for them to stay, tell them that in the future you would much prefer that he come to you with problems about his job before they reach meltdown status. Ask them to talk to you in specific terms (“I don’t feel like I can continue to work every night and every weekend with no end in sight”). Or to come to you with a specific question (“Is there any way you can help me reduce the number of hours I am working?”). Or, better yet, to come to you with a set of specific suggestions that might alleviate their stress (“I have two ideas that will improve our bottom line and give me more time to do the most important work you hired me for— and that I want to do”).

If you agree that the best arrangement for both of you is for them to leave, shake his or her hand and wish them good luck. In either case, forget about the threat and all the heartache it may have caused. It’s time to get back to business.