Ten Signs Your Star Employee Is Job-Hunting

Dear Liz,

I am a big believer in employee development. Since I started my job four years ago I have trained three employees who were subsequently promoted into management jobs. That's one of my proudest accomplishments.

Right now my department has five members. We are a great team. I am especially dependent on our senior Account Manager "James." He joined our team two years ago as a trainee and learned the ropes fast. I have given James four pay increases and two promotions in two years.

He deserves everything he's received but I've pushed HR and my own boss as far as they will go.

I've already been informed that I'm not going to get any more money for James in 2017.

James and I held our new year planning meeting in January. James is on track on his 2017 goals.

I asked him what he needed from me to meet his personal career goals this year, and he was very vague. That made me nervous because in the past James had thought a lot about things he wanted and needed from me and he's not shy about asking for them.

In 2015 he wanted to go to a conference, and I sent him. He wanted to be moved to one of our biggest accounts and we made that switch. In 2016 James wanted to join a professional society and we approved that and paid his dues.

Also that year, we sent James to represent our company at a local event where he spoke on a panel. This year James had no requests. Should I be nervous?

I could easily imagine one of our clients snagging James away from us. I wouldn't be surprised if headhunters contact him on a regular basis. He's very good at his job.

We don't mind when our employees leave us but if James left our team this year the timing would be terrible.

Should I ask James whether he's still happy in his job? Is there any point? If he's thinking about leaving, would he tell me?

What do you recommend?



Dear Arturo,

I was with you all the way until I got to the part of your letter where you said "If James left our team this year, the timing would be terrible."

I have to be real with you, Arturo -- that's ridiculous.

Bad timing for a key employee's departure is a real thing, but it doesn't last nine months.

There are still nine months to go in 2017. If James is in charge of a major campaign that's rolling out in June and he walks out the door with two weeks' notice in May, that could be a huge pain in the neck.

If you fear he's job-hunting in March and he leaves in October, you will have had seven months to prepare. If you fail to prepare for James' departure, that's on you!

Every robust system has redundancy built into it. If you know you're dependent on James, it doesn't matter whether he tells you he's job-hunting or not -- either way, you have to develop a backup plan!

You can talk with James, but there's little value in doing so unless you are willing to say "James, if you want to leave this group or leave the company soon or at any point in the future, it's fine. I will help you. I will give you a good reference, of course. I will make introductions for you. I only ask you to give me as much advance notice as you can."

This can be a tough message to send. Managers hate to fling open the gates and say "Go ahead and take a new job, whenever you feel like it!" but if you want James to be honest with you, you have to do it.

You must demonstrate your acceptance and support for James' progress inside or outside the company if you want to build enough trust to make him comfortable sharing his job-search adventures with you.

If James say "Well, yes, I am job-hunting" you can't get snippy or act wounded.

You have to smile and say "Good for you, James! That is outstanding news!"

You must be a mentor to James in that moment, rather than a boss.

Here are 10 signs your star employee may be job-hunting:

1. They were disgruntled or frustrated with certain obstacles in your company before -- but they don't complain about or even mention those frustrations anymore.

2. They dress more formally for work than your dress code or culture require.

3. They arrive late for work, leave early and/or have a lot of lunches out of the office.

4. They seem distracted.

5. They do a great job on their daily work but seem less interested in long-term planning and brainstorming.

6. They walk outside to make and receive phone calls.

7. They bring up new and unfamiliar terms, facts and trends in your conversations with them or at meetings. Maybe they're reading industry news sites -- or maybe they're learning these new terms and concepts at job interviews.

8. They stop pitching you on new ideas. You are not the focus of their creative expression anymore -- their prospective hiring managers in other companies are the focus of their attention now!

9. They don't get excited about perks and plum assignments you give them. That makes sense, because they don't expect to finish those assignments before they leave.

10. They are lit by a new fire from within, and everyone around them can feel it.

When a great employee's flame burns brightly even though few if any of their on-the-job frustrations have been resolved, it means they are looking up and out to their future -- and that future doesn't include you!

Don't be upset when a star employee moves on. Life is long. Your paths may intersect again, but even if that doesn't happen, you've had influence on James and he's had influence on you.

You already know that you can coach people like James to grow and advance. If James moves on to a new assignment, you get to do that all over again!

Start thinking about people who could step into James' role if he gives notice. You can start cross-training someone right now, a little bit at a time.

However, don't ask James to train anyone on his work until after you've had your high-trust meeting with him.

That's the meeting where you'll tell him that whenever he decides to leave the company, whether it's next month or years from now, you will be behind him one hundred percent.

We are rooting for both of you!



Liz Ryan is CEO/founder of Human Workplace and author of Reinvention Roadmap