You can’t hire ambitious people and then ask them to stop being ambitious.

Hiring managers, executives, CEOs—especially those in tech—are proud to say that we only consider applicants with an unrelenting drive for success and a track record of impressive accomplishments. These qualities often correlate with what we perceive (accurately or not) to be our own reasons for success, and we want to find people like us: individuals with intrinsic motivation, constantly striving to do better.

But, after these team members do exceptional work and expect exceptional pay, benefits, and promotions, we balk.

Suddenly, we downplay their accomplishments, rant that they’re “still not working as hard as I did,” rewire our memories to soften the praise we’d once given, and invent new hurdles that these impressive-until-they-asked-for-too-much workers must now clear.

Worse still, when they leave our organizations after being passed-over and take that higher-paying/more-prestigiously-titled job with another company, we’re shocked. Bitterness and anger creep in. Too often, I’ve seen leaders spiral with resentment, vowing to hire less, do more themselves, complain that it’s “the kids these days,” that “no one wants to work anymore,” that “employees should be grateful.” 🙄

None of this is emotionally healthy.

None of this is fair.

None of this makes our companies better.

Employees are not beholden to their employer. Unemployment rates globally are near historic lows. It’s labor’s market right now. No matter how generous you are with benefits, vacation time, medical coverage, even personal kindness and friendship, your employees owe you nothing save the work they do from one pay period to another. Can you hope for more from your team? Certainly. Can you ask for more? Within reason, yes. Can you get angry when these hopes and requests aren’t met?


Part of being a good employer means having the maturity to know that people leave organizations for reasons both logical and not. When they leave, they don’t owe us explanations, just as when we turn down a job applicant, we owe no reasons, either (in fact, every employment attorney advises *never* to give reasons when rejecting a candidate).

Friends, I have deep empathy for both employees who leave and managers/execs who feel emotional when they go. When people I cared for left my previous company, or if (heaven forbid) Casey or Amanda left SparkToro, I’d be a mess.

The real question is—is it fair or useful to blame them?

Anyone in the modern job market who’s done even a modicum of research knows that changing companies is often the best and sometimes the only way to earn a titular promotion and greater pay. Workers can easily Google the stats and see that those who stay in jobs for 2+ years get paid 50% less. They learn through experience and data that the key to earning more is switching jobs. Whether it’s correlation or causation hardly matters—reality is that workers who want better jobs and lives must regularly be on the hunt.

You might be the exception, but the rule is: employers don’t reward workers until they’re forced.

If you’re hiring smart, talented, thoughtful people with motivation and problem-solver mentalities, it’s insanity to expect them not to apply those qualities to their own careers.

Yes, the risk of good people leaving is high. And it absolutely sucks when they do. Replacing talent is a painful slog. Training up new hires saps productivity. The fear that these new folks will leave only makes it harder. But, the percent of people leaving their jobs in any given month has been rising for fourteen solid years. Around the globe, ~40% of workers say it’s likely they’ll leave their job soon.

If you lose fewer than 4 of your best 10 people in the year ahead, count yourself lucky. Statistically, every company, even those who’ve done significant layoffs the last few months, should expect substantial attrition. The only things you can control are:

  1. Your emotional reaction
  2. Your plan for how to minimize the lost productivity (re-hiring & training, gap-filling, or doing fewer things for a while)
  3. How you treat the person departing and speak about them/their departure

When I was my worst self, I used the emotions of sadness, frustration, and anger to create distance between myself and the team member I’d lost. From conversations I’ve had in the past few months, it’s a relief to know I wasn’t alone, but a tragedy to find out so many bosses take it so hard and react so poorly.

And we know exactly what happens when you let your anger boil over and speak ill of someone who’s leaving or has left your team (to them or to those who’ve stayed). Bad things. Problem-multiplying things. Team-culture destroying things. Talk to your spouse, therapist, coach, maybe a close friend. It’s fine to express sadness, to miss them, and to talk positively (even wistfully) about their time with your org, but don’t poison your team or your industry reputation with unhealthy rhetoric.

There are two more things you can do, both with positives and negatives:

  1. Invest in making your organization a place people won’t want to leave
  2. Invest in making your organization a place that’s comfortable with high attrition

Re: #1 – for a half dozen years, my first startup (Moz) was a place very few people left. Much of that was because the company’s rapid growth made career progression, salary progression, the promise of stock option value, and the excitement of being part of something that felt like it could be the “next big Seattle startup.” Of course, if your business isn’t in that position (as mine wasn’t in its later, plateauing-growth years), that advice isn’t much help.

Survey data on why people leave jobs, however, might be.

Re: #2 – Many companies have built-in redundancy and expectations (borne out through historical stats) of how many people will leave and approximately when. For large companies, this is essential, and a well-honed skill expected of management and HR teams. For small companies and those founders/leaders with little attrition experience, it’s far more challenging, but still possible.

The keys lie in knowing your replacement and lost productivity costs in time and dollars, and in establishing every new position with thought to risk-management for that team member’s departure. Even if you mess up, miscalculate, and find yourself needing to burn the midnight oil or overcompensate with help from other team members, the exercise alone will help the loss sting less.

We humans are funny like that. Unexpected losses—like employees we were certain were happy and would stay with us for years to come—are always the hardest to process.

One final thought: if you really can’t stomach the pain of losing talented, ambitious people, don’t hire them. Optimize your company to work with less ambitious, driven people. Not everyone cares exclusively (or even very much) about their career. Plenty of folks are happy to put in the requisite hours and work, and not an ounce more. And plenty of shockingly successful businesses are staffed by these motivated-by-things-that-aren’t-work individuals.