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Retiring employees: 8 tips for a smooth transition

Many organizations are facing a worrisome situation – retirement looms for a large percentage of their workforce and younger workers aren’t yet ready to fill those shoes.

What strategies can you implement to proactively preserve the wealth of institutional knowledge that drives your company’s productivity?

Here are eight tips to help soon-to-be-retiring employees make a smooth exit.

1. Avoid knowledge silos

Long-time employees have often formed relationships across the company, giving them a deeper understanding of how their job impacts someone else’s work in another area. If your company’s policies or procedures don’t actively encourage knowledge-sharing across departments, silos can result. Without a broader appreciation for other departmental roles, younger, less experienced employees may unwittingly sow chaos, causing delays or costly mistakes.

To avoid such silos, encourage managers to have experienced employees share their knowledge in monthly meetings, or document the bare bones of processes and procedures particular to them.

2. Don’t undervalue older workers

Many companies make the mistake of thinking younger, less experienced employees will cost less than older employees who make more money. Beware the younger, cheaper siren call.

Long-time employees have built a wealth of knowledge about how to work most efficiently and know your customers. They know what’s worked in the past, what hasn’t, and why. A younger, less experienced employee, eager to make their mark, may implement policies and procedures that have failed numerous times before, alienating customers and costing the company money.

Also avoid signaling to senior employees that you want them to leave by asking, “Are you ready to retire?” A more subtle conversation may begin with, “What are your plans for the next three to five years?”

3. Cross-train employees

Cross-training is another antidote to the brain-drain inherent when long-time employees leave. A three- to six-month assignment in another department allows younger or newer workers to gain hands-on experience in areas of the company unfamiliar to them.

Cross-training can also build your operational team and prevent information silos.

To prevent older workers from feeling threatened, be sure to communicate that the purpose of cross-training is to build company-wide knowledge, not to push senior staff out the door.

4. Consider alternatives to full retirement

Some employees want to start their permanent vacation ASAP. Others may want to remain in a part-time or consulting role for a few years before hopping in their RV and riding into the sunset.

For employees, such alternative work arrangements offer reduced stress and a continued, though smaller, paycheck.

For employers, part-timers can lessen the chaos caused by a sudden change in personnel. Going part-time forces needed changes in roles and responsibilities, but leaves the older worker in place and available to answer questions and share wisdom.

Occasional consulting may work for special projects or to free an experienced manager to coach newer leaders.

5. Plan succession across all departments

Succession plans aren’t just for the C-suite. You also need to pay attention to whether an entire department is closing in on retirement, and manage accordingly.

For instance, if your entire HR department is 55+, you have trouble brewing. As older HR workers retire or make lateral moves, you should have a plan in place so that younger specialists and managers have time to learn from their older peers and be ready to step into senior roles when the time comes.

Some managers unconsciously get into the mind-set of thinking they need someone of a particular age, gender or other external characteristic rather than focusing on skill set.

A succession plan that outlines each position’s key roles and responsibilities can help an organization shake such self-limiting behaviors and create opportunities to find excellent replacements for retiring workers. Remember, someone’s style or work cadence doesn’t necessarily equate with an ability to learn or fulfill a new role.

6. Manage across generations

Aging employees need to know that it’s part of their job to train the younger generation, and younger workers need to know it’s their job to learn from their more experienced peers. At the same time, you don’t want to signal to older workers that their experience is unappreciated or unneeded, or that you think it’s time for them to leave.

You can help facilitate cross-generational learning by reminding everyone that there is much to be learned from different perspectives and work styles. Often, if the leader fosters an open-sharing work environment it can minimize feelings of ageism or discrimination that older workers may feel as they begin to transition.

An open environment can be as simple or complex as the leader desires. It may take the form of quarterly team huddles. For a younger manager, showing respect to older workers might mean planning a staff outing to a museum rather than a rock-climbing facility. For an older manager, it might mean encouraging senior staff to mentor a younger employee or engaging them in the process of planning for their retirement.

7. Make annual assessments

Whether it’s succession planning or knowledge sharing, you should conduct a retirement assessment annually. Take a look at which departments or jobs may be heavy on soon-to-retire employees. Have conversations with your long-time employees and ask, “What do you do that’s not in your job description? How do you do it?”

Tenured employees are often the ones who’ve created bypasses for broken or inefficient processes – processes you may not know are broken. Such conversations give you the opportunity to capture what these workers know and use it to the company’s advantage.

8. Don’t wait till they’re out the door

Knowledge transfer takes time and effort, so don’t wait until a week before the retirement party to start the process. Either through mentorship, job sharing, job shadowing or other techniques, have your retiring workers share the whys behind what they do and the way they do it.

If you ask someone to document their job, it doesn’t have to be terribly formal or in-depth, but it should cover the key elements. They should identify those processes that are critical to the business, including important details, such as where files are kept.

It signals an appreciation for what your aging employees do when you ask them to partner with you in planning their graceful exit.

In the end, always go back to the human element when dealing with someone’s retirement. Remember, you are touching on this person’s livelihood and their identity so proceed with kindness and respect.

Looking for more tips to help you better manage your workforce? Download our free e-book, How to Develop a Top-notch Workforce That Will Accelerate Your Business.