3 Questions Employees Have When Leaders Move On

Last year the news broke that Twitter CEO Dick Costolo – embattled, criticized and, by some accounts, just over dealing with it – announced he would step down. Jack Dorsey, Twitter founder and former CEO, stepped in to fill the void temporarily as the search for a permanent hire ramped up.

Costolo isn’t alone – in recent years, several prominent leaders left their companies for various reasons, from Larry Ellison (need I even say Oracle?) to Dov Charney (American Apparel) to Gregg Steinhafel (Target).

A shift in leadership is certainly not always negative – and, in fact, can prove beneficial for the company in the long run. Change, however, frequently sparks curiosity and concern for employees. Managing it well requires candor and transparency.

Are you prepared to answer some of the most common questions your workforce might have?

What about my job? This is the most fundamental question an employee has about change that significantly impacts an organization. It’s an entirely natural and reasonable response to perceived uncertainty. Your employees aren’t working for free – they’re doing it for a variety of reasons, like paying back student loans, supporting aging parents or young children, advancing their careers, bettering themselves, saving for the future. Any change that might produce a bow wave of instability is most definitely cause for potential consternation. Address it at the first opportunity – at an all-company meeting, for instance. Be honest without being alarmist. If you don’t know what the impact will be, it’s preferable to acknowledge that things are in flux versus making overly optimistic promises you may not be able to keep.

What does the company’s future look like? If the company is a newsmaker, employees will already have a pretty clear picture of how external voices perceive its performance, future, strengths and weaknesses. Your leadership team can’t remain silent – employees want it straight from you. They deserve to hear it. There may be elements that can’t be disclosed in sharp, unrelenting detail – for example, you simply may not be able to discuss a massive ongoing lawsuit. But there are ways you can acknowledge some of the larger issues and then outline the plans to address them. Don’t forget to talk about what’s going right too. It’s fair to say that the media doesn’t always have the full picture – but you do. So share a dose of the good even as you address the bad.

What happened to so-and-so? I heard that CEO X left because she got a little too close with her assistant. CEO Y got the boot because of his white-hot temper and all those famous tantrums – the board finally had enough, I heard. CEO Z “resigned” because they caught him embezzling – I heard that from my boss. When someone highly visible departs, the rumor mill starts to churn, often fueled by internal memos that contain such eyeroll-inducing phrases as “leaving to spend more time with his family” or “enjoying some time off before she takes on her next challenge.” Leadership is frequently hamstrung from being clear about why someone left because of confidentiality, legal issues, and a fundamental respect for employee privacy. This is typically true, with the exception of things like egregious misconduct, for example, which sparks an external investigation or media coverage. In most cases, you’ll have to stick with what you’re legally allowed to say. Use it as an opportunity to then pivot and discuss what employees can expect from the hiring process (how long it will take, what you’re looking for) or the incoming leader, if known.

Michael Fertik
About the author: 

Michael Fertik is the Founder and Executive Chairman at Reputation.com, a global leader in digital reputation and privacy management.  Michael is a Lecturer at Harvard Law School on digital privacy law, and is the former President at TruExchange.  He serves on the CEO Council of Campaign to Fix the Debt.  Mr.Fertik holds 9 U.S. patents, and serves on multiple committees for the World Economic Forum and the Aspen Institute. In 2012, TechAmerica named Michael Entrepreneur of the Year.  Follow him on Twitter.