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Downton Abbey: Handling an employee resignation with class

Although Downton Abbey focuses on the upstairs/downstairs dynamics of the fictional aristocratic Crawley familshutterstock_170276813y and their staff, there are still some lessons that contemporary employers may take from the show. For instance, in a recent episode, the staff dealt with the sudden resignation of second footman Alfred, as he was accepted into the Ritz cooking course and decided to pursue his dream of becoming a chef. Just as butler Carson was faced with the prospect of an unexpected, voluntary staff departure, so are many employers in modern society. There are certain steps employers can take to help make such transitions smoother.

1. Two-week notice. Consider whether to include a section addressing employee notices in the handbook. You should beware of making it mandatory for employees to provide advance notice, given that some courts have found this to alter their at-will status and have even interpreted such notice requirements as reciprocal for the employers.

2. Employee contracts and restrictive covenants.  If the employee in question happens to have a written contract, carefully review it to make sure the employee and the company are meeting their contractual obligations in the event of a voluntary resignation.

3. Constructive discharge. While Alfred departed from Downton with mutual respect and admiration for his former employers, employee resignations aren’t always so happy. If the employee is departing under less than optimal circumstances, consult with legal counsel and consider whether the employee may later claim that he/she was constructively discharged (i.e., the employer forced him/her to resign).  This will help the company and its legal counsel be better prepared to handle such allegations down the road.

4. Final pay and company property. Be sure to review pertinent state laws concerning the timing of final paychecks for departing employees. Also, it’s usually best to collect all company property (keys, equipment, etc.) as soon as possible.

5. Finding a replacement.  Just as Carson had a difficult time finding a willing replacement to fill Alfred’s well-polished shoes, employers generally want to minimize delays and work disruptions in filling open positions. Some considerations may include: whether any job posting requirements apply; whether an internal or external candidate would be preferable; whether the job description for the position needs updating; whether the position is such that a search committee would be a wise investment of resources; and whether it would be appropriate to ask the departing employee to be available to train the replacement.

As Alfred ventures off to realize his dream and Carson offers the footman position (though grudgingly) to Molesley, it appears that this abrupt employee resignation has gone fairly smoothly. Unfortunately, Daisy’s long-time crush on Alfred would probably lead her to disagree with me on that point. It remains to be seen how well Molesley (a former butler who has been going through hard times since Matthew’s shocking death) will handle his transition to a position that he seems to view as a step down. But that is a blog entry for another day.