What do you MEAN, you’re leaving?!

Your best employee just told you she needs to take an extended leave of absence.

Maybe it’s a sick family member. Maybe she just got the chance of a lifetime to do something she’s always dreamed of. Maybe it’s something else.

Whatever it is, she’s going to be gone for a while.

And she’s giving you a choice: she can either take that leave of absence, or she can quit outright.

After you finish panicking…

What do you do?

You’d like to tell her she has to stay because she’s in the middle of a critical project – but obviously, that’s not going to work, because then she’ll just hand you her resignation letter.

On the flip side, you’d like to be responsive to her needs and give her the time she’s asking for.

And this is a more complex question.

What does HR have to say?

Your company may have policies in place that define what types of extended leave someone can take, and under what circumstances. Similarly, there are certain legal specifications that cover family care leave and the like. So before you make decisions one way or another, check in with your HR department.

What does she have to say?

If she’s smart, she’s done the legwork with HR and unravelled the legal questions already, and has brought you her plan.

If not, ask her to provide a plan. How long will she be gone? What does HR have to say? Does she know what the employment law is regarding her situation? What commitment is she willing to make about coming back on time – or at all? What knowledge transfer and turnover support will she provide before leaving, and is she open to taking questions via email or phone whilst she’s gone?

What does the team have to say?

How prepared is the team to pick up the slack? Can they pick up the slack, or will they need additional support – an employee borrowed from another team, a temporary hire to cover some of the work, a consultant with the appropriate expertise, or something else?

What do you have to say?

You’re her manager. And while you may have endless compassion for her situation, whatever it might be, you’re still responsible for doing the right thing overall.

That may be giving her the time she’s asking for (again, assuming it’s all good with HR; obviously, if it’s mandated by law, you have no choice).

But it might be that you have to say no – for the good of the project and the health and sanity of the team and the long-term impact on the department and company as a whole.

Only you can decide.

What will they have to say?

Some companies routinely grant sabbaticals or leaves of absence to employees. If your employer does this, this article isn’t relevant for you; it’s already covered by policy.

Without a standard policy, if you decide to say yes, be very clear with everyone that this is a unique situation. Define the parameters such that you don’t get a horde of employees requesting the same consideration – unless, of course, you want to work with your HR department to create a foundational policy!

On the other hand, if you decide to say no, be just as clear with everyone why it’s not possible. Otherwise, you’ll be painted with the “mean manager” brush, and morale on your team will suffer.

There’s no easy answer to these types of questions. But being prepared for risks – whether it’s a key employee requesting a leave of absence, or falling seriously ill, or any other unexpected situation – is part of your job as a manager and leader.