If you walk into your office and an employee hands you a letter of resignation, it’s only natural to start thinking of an immediate replacement. This response is usually supported by one, perhaps two, reasons. The most common reason for this reflex thinking is that even though your headcount has decreased, the workload and the associated deadlines are still your responsibility. Replacing the lost employee as quickly as possible is just common sense.

The other reason is a less logical one, and perhaps more difficult to overcome. I’ve known managers who believe that if they could operate ‘effectively’ with a reduced headcount for even a short period of time, they could operate with that new headcount forever — even though my staff had to make superhuman efforts and unreasonable sacrifices to meet existing deadlines and service levels. With the threat of a permanently reduced headcount dangling over your head, you might think that the faster you replace the departing employee, the better.

Putting this irrational hurdle aside for a moment, is the common-sense approach of immediately filling the open position the best possible solution to the problem?

I had always assumed so, until I was unable to fill an IT position at a retail company for about six months due to the lack of suitable candidates. During that waiting period, some very interesting things happened to my team.

The first thing we did was to prioritize our usual tasks. What did we have to do? What would be nice to do? And what could we stop doing? That last category is sometimes surprisingly large. Somehow, our days get cluttered with trivial tasks that do nothing to move us towards our important goals, the ones we are paid to complete. Unless these are discarded from time to time, they make productive work all but impossible.

Once we had decided what we could ignore, we focused our attention on the remaining tasks, both the ones driven by fixed and important deadlines and those that would be nice to accomplish. We also listed new projects we wanted to get going but had not had a chance to initiate because of the existing workload. In other words, we took the loss of an employee and created the opportunity to re-evaluate everything we were doing, focusing on old important tasks and adding new projects that we knew would grow our department.

We then took the bold step of disconnecting all tasks from all staff members and then explored what we’d like to work on. This strategy allowed people to get away from what they found boring or unchallenging and permitted them to attempt tasks, old and new, that they’d never worked on before.

At the end of this shuffling of assignments and several months of monitoring the ‘new’ team assignments, we had accomplished two important tasks. First, we had revitalized the departmental work experience by introducing a lot of desired change. When we shifted tasks around, team members were given the opportunity to grow into slightly and sometimes completely different positions of responsibility.

Second, we identified department responsibilities we could not deliver because we were lacking in either the resources or expertise. These became the desired skill set of the new hire.

The difference with this “delayed hiring” and the common sense approach of immediately filling the vacant position is best summarized by that last sentence. If you hire immediately, you will have a tendency to hire the exact same skill set that you lost. You will attempt to “repair” the hole in your team with a clone of the missing person. Your goal becomes “protect the status quo.”

By using the person’s resignation as a forced opportunity (or excuse, if you prefer) to change your department, you end up searching for someone with new skills to add to your existing expertise. Your goal becomes “grow the organization.”

There is still, of course, the problem of management and the possibility that they might reduce your headcount while you reshuffle your department. The best solution to that problem is a proactive explanation of what you’re attempting to achieve. If they understand what you’re trying to accomplish, they might be more willing not to fiddle with your headcount.

de Jager is a speaker, management consultant and seminar leader. Contact him via his Web site, www.technobility.com.

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