Avoiding the Blindside: How to Prevent Unexpected Departures

No matter what size your firm or company, you’ve certainly seen some turnover of lawyers and staff, and probably heard the common observation: “people come and go.” Within the legal profession, transitions are inevitable, and people move on.


Sometimes the departure of a key person is expected, and we have had adequate time to plan for it. A retirement might come with several years notice, after we have had enough time to create a succession plan.  Other times, however, a departure is sudden, dramatic and shocking. We suddenly learn that one of our key people is leaving in just a few days, or perhaps that they suddenly quit and are already gone. It can create chaos as lawyers and administrators all scramble to deal with the aftermath. The people that remain are forced to take on tasks, projects, cases, and accountabilities they previously had no intention or expectation of handling.

Of course not every departure is as dramatic as this, but too often, we are left feeling “blindsided.” When this happens, after the initial shock wears off, people want to understand why they left, why they didn’t see it coming, and what could have been done to prevent it. Let’s look at how to seek that understanding, and consider everyday business practices that can help prevent most blindsides from occurring.

To begin understanding “the blindside,” look first to the most common reasons that people leave a professional situation:

Dissatisfaction with work relationships.

When the work environment feels intolerable, it is typically not because of the way the office is decorated or that the air conditioning is too cold, it is because of one or more broken relationships with co-workers and colleagues. Nothing can be more stressful than having to work with a team or even just one person who you don’t get along with. The feeling of tension when they walk in the room is only heightened when you also feel trapped to deal with it day after day—because this is your job, and you don’t feel like you can choose to disassociate with that person or people as you might outside of work. It might seem that the only choice to get away from all this tension is to leave the firm.

To further career goals.

Unless someone creates their own job, or their own firm, work is rarely an exact match to what a person chose to do or what they envision for themselves. As a result, typically some level of compromise is reached, which may be conscious or otherwise, which results in people accepting employment with some type of internal justification, reservation or future ambition. Their justification may be that this will better prepare them for that next position, which is closer to whatever they envision, or even that taking this job is just a necessary evil while waiting for such an opportunity to arise.  When a better opportunity arises, they go for it.

To pursue personal goals.

Just as a position within a certain industry might not be an exact match, many other aspects of a person’s life circumstances might not either. One prime example: the place/city where someone is living might not be their ideal. Even though they’ve been living in this place for five years, 10 years, , or even their whole life to date – they yearn to live elsewhere. That feeling might be so powerful that they want to live anywhere else. They also might have a dream that involves pursuing a sport or cultivating a talent that creates a dissonance with their day-to-day professional life. Another example: an employee intends to start a family. If they believe that there is no way to reconcile having a family with the requirements of their current job, they will look for another job that seems like a better fit.

If these are the reasons why people change jobs, when does the blindside happen?

The blindside occurs when any of these aspirations or discontents are unknown to us. We are blindsided because we had no idea anything was wrong or that there was anything else they wanted or were seeking. Latent dissatisfactions, hidden career goals, and unknown personal goals are all the breeding grounds for the blindside.  The greater the sense that an individual is alone with their dissatisfactions or goals, the more likely that their departure will happen, and will seem to come without warning.

The greater the sense that an individual is alone, the more likely they are to depart. | Click to Tweet

The task of avoiding the blindside seems relatively clear: make sure that whatever is latent, hidden, and unknown is instead known and out in the open. Make sure that people feel like they are respected. Make sure people feel safe in talking about those things that they feel is up to them alone to resolve or further, and that you care about helping them.


How do we do this?

  1. Create a safe environment to talk about what matters among colleagues, especially between people at different levels. This means that not only are people’s thoughts and feelings respected, but that within the culture, it is abhorrent to criticize or minimize what others have to say.
  2. We need to actively show interest and inquire about what matters to our colleagues. In other words, don’t just create a space for people to tell you, but actually ask them! Get to know what your team members want—both personally and professionally. Ask, and find out about their dreams and aspirations. Sometimes the energy behind an aspiration is amplified out of proportion when we feel that no one else is interested or cares. We put a lot of energy behind it because we believe that if we don’t, no one else will. But when the people around us show an interest, it becomes less important to us to “make a big move.”
  3. Actively root out any and all workplace discontent and “incompletions.” When a person has a negative interaction with another team member, or feels regret or resentment about the outcome of a project, often it is because something was left “incomplete” or unsaid. Most of the time we “deal” with it quietly, maybe complain to someone else, but ultimately sweep it under the rug. When we do this, it doesn’t go away, it only festers. Then we unconsciously drag this incompletion into our next interactions with our team or our next project. To make sure this does not happen, it must be part of the culture to deal with anything incomplete. Gossiping or undermining must be forbidden in the firm culture, so that the response to anyone gossiping about a co-worker would always be “you need to go talk to them directly and resolve this immediately.”

The solution to avoiding the blindside is to create a work environment or a firm or company culture where openness is promoted and encouraged. A firm culture where people feel not only safe to reveal their discontent and to resolve differences, but where they feel that others are interested and care in what matters most to them. Overall, a workplace culture and environment of respect for others is the best way to not only avoid the blindside, but to promote workplace satisfaction. Culture alone will not eliminate every future blindside, but at worst, they will be few and far between.

About the Author

Rich Goldstein is a registered patent attorney, and founder of Goldstein Patent Law. He is the author of the recent book: The ABA Consumer Guide to Obtaining a Patent. Contact Rich on Twitter @RichGoldstein.

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