Rough transitions damage both the nonprofit and the worker involved. Following difficult transitions, departing workers leave feeling less than positive about their employers, and employers feel relieved the “problem worker” is no longer working there. In such cases, workers may speak unfavorably about the organization, potentially eroding public trust or the reputation of the nonprofit. Outgoing or former workers may also pursue complaints with the board, file whistleblower complaints with regulatory agencies, and/or file lawsuits against the organization. Most workers who pursue legal action against their former employer say they would not have if they had been treated more fairly.

When we approach worker transitions holistically, we can see transitions as part of a natural process for workers and even leadership within a nonprofit. Ultimately, we would like everyone affected by our work, including workers, service providers, or clients, to all be life-long ambassadors for our nonprofit and for our cause. This requires graceful acceptance and navigation of transitions, treating people with dignity, and maintaining connections with departing workers.

As you think about approaching worker transitions holistically, here are a few things to consider.

Preparing for Worker Transitions

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Reduce reliance on any single staff person

Promote cross-training and teamwork and encourage documentation of how things are done (carve out time for this work). When a worker announces their departure, work with the person to best use their remaining time at the nonprofit to share their knowledge with others and create a written transition document.

Be intentional about succession planning

At many nonprofits, talking about staff succession is taboo. People prefer to keep their heads in the sand rather than contemplate the possibility that a key employee may leave the organization. If trust is present, talking openly about succession is a positive thing. Intentional succession planning can help people focus on what is best for the nonprofit and their role in leaving a lasting legacy.

Show care and concern for the worker and their future

In the best of transitions, organizations partner with their workers to support both work and individual development which leaves a worker better positioned to find opportunities aligned with their strengths, interests, and career aspirations.

Although you may feel a loss in the moment, take the long view and recognize that having an “alumni” network of successful people is beneficial to your nonprofit.

Create a transition checklist

Having a key worker leave can be hectic. Create a checklist to make sure you cover the basics such as work-related computer and software passwords, the return of keys and equipment, filing written documentation that notes the end date, and confirming details of the worker’s final paycheck.

Complete an exit interview

A brief exit interview provides a chance to receive feedback about your workplace, why the worker is leaving, and in what ways they would like to stay connected to the organization in the future. This is valuable information that should be used to improve the workplace for remaining workers. Organizations should look for ways to improve existing processes through data gathered.

Celebrate the contributions of the departing team member

Coming together as a team to express appreciation and gratitude for the departing worker can be a powerful parting gift. This might be a celebratory lunch, a treat at their last staff meeting, or a bigger event for a long-time key worker.

Even if the worker is parting on less-than-ideal terms, reflecting on their strengths ends things on a good note.

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