If You Love Them Let Them Go

Encouraging your best employees to flirt with other opportunities may be the secret to their eternal loyalty. Anecdotes and insights from Katie Cowden. 


We’ve all been there...the fake ‘dentist’ appointment...the “cable guy is coming so I’ll be in late”... explaining you’re “dressed up” for a family function that night, or even changing out of interview clothes in a cab (anyone???) When everyone knows that interview experience is vital and networking is more important than ever, why is it that we must sneak around like a cheating spouse every time we take an interview? 

It doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve long believed in a “DO ask DO tell” approach to employees interviewing. I’m not alone. I learned it from Britta years ago, and these days I hear from more and more managers that they too are encouraging their employees to take the interview and report back. 

Why? Because you can….

#1 Control the conversation

Resistance is futile. They will interview. They will get offers. They will eventually leave. A recent study showed that nearly ⅓ of employees are actively seeking a new role in 2019. Wouldn’t it feel better to be talking openly about it? 

If someone is an asset, I’d much rather be ahead of it. It gives me the best chance of keeping them happy, keeping them on the team, or if worse comes to worse, planning a smooth transition. If you’re having ongoing conversations, then you’re never scrambling to ‘counter’ someone’s new offer. If someone is not an asset? Then I’d love to help them confidently move on to a better fit. 

#2 Avoid ‘forbidden fruit’ syndrome

I joke all the time, I’ve been the interview(er) 100 times more than I’ve been the interview(ee). I don’t know if it’s unusual, but it’s not an exaggeration...I can count on both hands the number of interviews I’ve had in 14 years. 

The effect? Every interview I took was like forbidden fruit: guilt-ridden and completely alluring. Once I’d taken a bite, paradise was lost. Flaws became apparent in my current situation, frustrations run deeper, and ultimately I’d get restless for change. 

This effect was precisely why I avoided taking interviews for years at a time, even when I knew you were ‘supposed’ to do it for the experience. The irony is that if I’d made a habit of interviewing often, that ‘forbidden fruit’ effect may have never taken hold. It would have become routine, and would have lost the mystique. 

#3 Keep it in their best interest

Early in the relationship, I tell employees to please always speak to me before seriously entertaining (much less accepting) another offer. If they promise to do that, then I promise to keep their best interests at heart and be open and honest in return.

This is not an easy ask or an easy promise to keep. To improve my chances, I share my own personal stories (like the one at the bottom of this article). I’m open about some things ‘I learned the hard way’ so that they might not have to. Like for one thing...a big salary “bump” on signing might not pay off in the long run, depending on how often that company gives increases and bonuses. 

I can’t promise this honor system is flawless, just that it’s worked well for me. I’ve only been blindsided by one resignation since I adopted it (and she was an employee I’d recently ‘inherited’ through restructure, and she’d started a new visa process before she even joined my team.)

#4 Really talk about it

I not only want a heads up, and an opportunity to fight for my best employees, I want to know all about the other interview. How it went. Who they met, what they asked, what they said, what they wore. 

I ultimately want to understand if they’re happy working for me and feel like they’re growing. Gauging that in light of another courtship is a lot more powerful than a general check in. It also means dialog about goals--theirs, not just the ones I have for them.

You know what else I hear a lot? The grass isn’t always greener. Sometimes ‘shopping around’ helps you understand that you’ve got it pretty good. Every company has its challenges and its perks, and savvy interviewees know this.

#4 Gather intel

What have I learned from those few interviews I have taken? You can learn a TON in an interview. People will share all kinds of information with you...about process, practices, team structure, clients, and more. 

I didn’t interview enough to learn this early in my career. Yes...interviewing helps you hone your pitch. Yes it builds your network. But you can also gather a huge amount of information, without having to actually work there. 

#5 It’s good PR

Know what “good HR is good PR” looks like? Your star employee being poached and NOT taking another offer because they’re happy where they are. 

Imagine this...an amazing candidate goes on an interview and won’t stop talking about how happy they are in their current role. It’s a recruiter’s nightmare and an HR person’s dream. 

#6 It’s not business, it’s personal

People are loyal to people, not companies. When it comes to my best people, I want them to know I’m their mentor for life--not just within the four walls that we currently work in. Sometimes that means giving them advice as their friend rather than as their boss. That’s how real trust is earned. 

It’s exactly how Britta mentored me over the years, and it’s why she’s been able to hire me 3 different times for 3 different companies. Sometimes the payoff comes further down the line, but trust me, that kind of loyalty can’t be bought. 


My resignation story:

I often tell this anecdote as a way of introducing my ‘open door’ policy on interviews...  

After debating and agonizing for days on end, I once accepted a position without speaking to my current employer first. Upon finding out, the founder expressed major shock at my decision. They said would have “fought hard” to keep me, and didn’t hide their severe disappointment in not giving them the opportunity.

I was floored. And I was beside myself. Why?

  1. I didn’t have the confidence to know my own value

  2. I thought it was more respectful/honest/professional not to seek a counter offer

  3. I feared negotiating or “asking for more” would ultimately lead to resentment

  4. I didn’t know how personal it would feel

When the company tried to counter anyway, I wouldn’t hear the offer. In my mind, it was too late. I felt disloyal and ashamed. I couldn’t fathom reneging on the offer I’d accepted. And...I suspected I’d sold myself pretty short. If the counter had been great, it just would’ve proven it.*

I don’t ultimately regret the decision. I’m proud of my subsequent career. I learned from the experience. But I don’t love how it went down. When I speak of it, I still feel shame rising up in my throat.

The real lesson isn’t actually about leverage or negotiating. The real lesson is this: if I’d been 100% sure that the new opportunity was right for me, I could have had an open conversation about it before accepting. It was my doubt—not disloyalty—that poisoned the well. 

Since then, I have not agonized over the decision to take a new role. I still dreaded the actual resignation meeting, but it was MUCH easier to face when I was unequivocal. That’s what I want for my people. Of course I’d rather they stay...but if they DO leave, I want them to feel great about it. 

*Britta happened to be the HR person at the company I resigned from. In writing this article she let me know how much they were going to counter and yes...it was more than the new job offered me.

Britta Larsen