What To Do When Branded Employees Leave (or go to Miami)

July 12, 2010
By Lisa Barone in Branding

Last week a top player, someone who had spent seven years developing his name and his skill at one company, decided to leave and take a position playing for another. To make the situation worse, he did it in public. And with his own prime-time special. As an employer, this is pretty much your biggest fear. It’s the reason you’re terrified of social media and letting employees create a personal brand on your dime to begin with. Who wants to house a brand if all they’re going to do is break up with you? On television! However, it’s something you need to face. Because while you can’t escape it, you can leverage it.

As I’ve written before, I’m a really big believer in growing branded employees. I think it makes them more invested in what they’re doing, it creates a stronger social Rolodex for the company to utilize, and it heightens the attention and buzz around the brand. These are all things companies strive to create and they’re done more easily through branded employees. But what do you do when that person leaves? Do you have to rebuild from scratch? How do you handle it so that the brand thrives and you’re not left looking like a petty 14-year old?

Here are some suggestions.

Keep your head (and the bridge)

We’re human. When people voluntarily leave our family, we take it personally. However, that’s no reason to blow up a bridge you can use in the future. When branded employees leave, they’re probably not leaving to go live a quiet life on a farm. They’re going to a competitor, a client or they’re starting a new company under their own name. That means staying on good terms with this person isn’t only good for public relations, it’s also good for business. Check your ego at the door and be as kind to the person during their exit as you were when they were bringing you links, press and buzz. People remember how they were treated when they leave and just because someone has left the brand doesn’t mean you can’t keep them brand-loyal in their new venture.

Humbly acknowledge the loss

When someone who has been important to the company leaves, publicly acknowledge the loss. It makes the employee feel appreciated, helps clients and readers feel reassured, and shows the humanness of your company. Saying nothing or posting an angry letter on your Web site only makes you look cold and gives you another brand disaster to clean up in the morning. Take the time to really acknowledge the contribution this person made to your brand. Send out some tweets wishing them well, write a blog post about their departure, whatever is appropriate to properly honor them. It goes a long way.

Re-highlight a social culture

The companies hit hardest when a branded employee leave are the ones that never created a social culture and, instead, just anointed someone a Community Manager Fairy. This makes moving on difficult because you’ve now lost what was social about your company and have to rebuild on the spot. Hopefully, you’ve already created a culture around being social, but if you haven’t , now is the time to create one and show it off to customers. Doing so will make the transition easier for people and show that you’re still there and still listening even though a part of your team has moved on. Reemphasize how committed you are to staying engaged.

Have someone waiting to step up

While we’d like to think our employees will stick with us forever, the reality says they won’t. And that wasn’t created by social media. Even before someone leaves you should have some idea as to who will take over should the time come. That means you’re anxiously plotting your bloggers departure, but, maybe give of your other employees the opportunity to ‘guest post’ or contribute as a way of trying them out. There should be other people waiting in the wings to take over, should it ever be needed. There’s no rule that says you can’t groom more than one A-lister in your organization. Why not create a team of them?

Give the new person their own space

Our tendency in business to “stick with what works” isn’t always a smart one. No one is truly irreplaceable, but that doesn’t mean they should be cloned either. When I left Bruce Clay, Inc., Virginia Nussey was tasked with taking over the blog. And one reason I think she’s found so much success (outside of simply rocking) is that she’s really made the blog her own. She didn’t pretend to be me, just like I couldn’t pretend be Virginia. We have different voices and you do your brand a great service when you respect your authenticity. Let people be who they are and don’t force the new employee to look, sound, feel like the person who came before them. That’s what people will connect with and why they’ll stick around.

Move on

When a prominent member leaves, do not spend the next six months harking back to how they used to run things and talking about them as if they were dead. They’re not dead. They’re simply a competitor now. Just because they were successful under your umbrella, doesn’t mean that the brand is dead now that they’ve left. Keep your focus on today and what’s happening, both in the industry and in your company. There’s no reason your blog has to turn into a living memorial. It makes everyone feel uncomfortable.

Invite them back when appropriate

Once you’re back in your groove and the brand is strong, it may be appropriate to invite your former employee back to the site to participate in some way. Doing so will allow you to extend goodwill, introduces your brand to their new audience, and gives people the type of nostalgia they so often yearn for. If you’re looking for guest bloggers, help with an ebook or are putting together an interview series, these may all provide good opportunities for you to still take advantage of that person’s brand. However, only use when appropriate. Too much leaning and you just look like a desperate ex-girlfriend.

That’s my rulebook for how to conduct business once a branded employee decides to abandon ship. How have you handled it or how would you?

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