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Why I Let One of My Best People Go

Ben was the second employee at Skooba Design (not including me). He was our graphic designer, Web guy, and general jack-of-many-trades. Ben was bright, creative, talented, hard-working, and ambitious. So I had to let him go.

No, I don't fire good people. Duh. In fact, over 20 years, 2 family businesses and more than 100 employees, I have had to fire very few people for any reason, thankfully, and our turnover has been negligible. You should always do your best to retain your best, of course. I'm talking about making the most of a situation where you know for sure that a good employee will be leaving you at some point, no matter what you may try to do to prevent or delay it.

In this case, Ben had a big dream, and even though he will be the first to tell you he loved working here (and we loved having him here), we weren't in his big dream. His passion was horror movies, and in his spare time he designed horror-themed t-shirts and sold them on a Web site he built himself. Ben brought his packages in each morning (with our blessings) to be picked up with our mail, and month by month the piles of packages got bigger and bigger. Horror movie actors and even rock stars were wearing his shirts. Ben put in full days of work here, then went home and worked until 3 a.m. filling orders and responding to customers. Over the years, what was a hobby started to show signs of becoming a real business called Fright Rags.

The writing was on the wall. So rather than bury my head in the sand and hope my great employee wouldn't leave to pursue his entrepreneurial dream, I accepted the likelihood and, in fact, embraced it. I spoke to Ben often about his nascent business and helped him in any way I could, whether it was with finding an attorney, intellectual property issues, or just general advice.

Sure enough, one day Ben walked in my office, practically trembling. He didn't have to say a word; I knew the day had come. He said he felt he was at the point where he could make a go of it, and that he had to take his shot. I said "then you should," and a few weeks later he was in the scary-shirt business full-time.

Why would I help an employee with his exit plan? Several reasons:

  • If you think you can get between a determined person and his dream, you're kidding yourself. I was in Ben's position once, and no one could have stopped me from starting my own business. He deserved the same chance to go for it. So why fight it and turn it into something negative and counterproductive, especially in a small business that is as culture-driven as ours?
  • Ben was open and honest with me from the beginning. He didn't use or abuse our time or resources to work on his next gig. If he needed to do something for Fright Rags, he asked. Most people plan their exits on the sly, and he didn't. He earned my respect and support for that.
  • Knowing that I accepted the likely outcome and supported it, Ben worked as hard as ever for the time he remained here. Had I shown disapproval or negativity towards his "moonlighting," he would have lost steam, or worse. It's human nature, even for a loyal and conscientious person like Ben.
  • Because we kept this on the best possible terms, Ben stayed as long as we needed and was happy to help us after he left. Whether it was finding files, reviewing open projects, fixing Web site bugs or even dealing with network problems (Ben was our de facto IT guy, too), he was only a phone call away. If we needed help, he came back in. His loyalty and help eliminated most of the pain and expense associated with employee turnover. It's been 2 years since Ben left, and we still call him with a question from time to time.
  • I am not a particularly spiritual person, but I do believe in Karma (or something like it). I chose to shoot for the good kind.
The Karma thing seemed to work for all involved. Fright Rags became a success for Ben, and I couldn't be happier or more proud of him. And we quickly found another incredibly talented and creative person -- Kevin -- to fill his shoes. Kevin's passion is mixed martial arts, and if he one day becomes truly determined to pursue that, I am definitely not going to get in his way.

(Flickr photo by Mr. Littlehand)

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