MT EXPERT: How to discuss retirement

Telling an employee it's time to retire isn't easy. According to psychotherapists Rick Hughes and Andrew Kinder, though, it's just a matter of manners.

by Rick Hughes and Andrew Kinder
Last Updated: 13 Dec 2013

Are you avoiding having a difficult conversation with an older worker – perhaps about a succession to their role or regarding a competence issue? It’s never going to be easy, but there are some ways to respond:

1. Don’t do ‘advice’

If you are having a conversation with an older worker about leaving your organisation, offering well-intended ‘advice’ or ‘helpful hints’ may seem like a good way of sweetening the pill. But this can easily back-fire.  

Rather than distract from the immediate issue, the reality of their impending departure will be emphasised and the feelings of fear or anxiety they may already be experiencing are likely to be compounded. This approach can also come across as patronising.

Following the employee’s lead in this situation is a much safer option. If they suggest that they are looking forward to their retirement and, for example, being able to spend more time with their family or tending to their garden – this can be built upon.

2. You don’t understand

Suggesting you ‘understand’ what they are going through is a similarly risky option. How can you possibly understand what they are actually experiencing?  

Instead, listen. Let them do the talking and be attentive, taking care to acknowledge their fears and concerns. This might even lead to constructive conversations around the opportunities that await them. But once again, take their lead.

3. Listen to yourself

Take steps to ensure that your tone of voice cannot be misconstrued as uncaring – especially if the employee is being defensive (a particularly common reaction amongst those who have held a very senior role or who have been in the company for a very long time – much longer than you!).  

It is also important to consider how you yourself feel about age.  Perhaps you hold a negative attitude towards older employees (‘they are stuck in their ways and slow things down’)? Or maybe you feel excessively guilty (‘This is all my fault – this person is upset and worried about their future because of me’)? These feelings will come across.

Before sitting down with the employee, listen to yourself – and adjust accordingly.

4. Give yourself time

Make sure you have fully prepared beforehand and that you know, for example, the practical help that your organisation is able to offer retiring employees (counselling, outplacement, employee assistance).

The vast majority of people retiring do so with great excitement, fond memories and joy at the prospect of no more lengthy commutes or rushing to meet a customer’s timescale. But some might struggle. Offering them the option to use support programmes can help allay fears, manage concerns and cope with difficulties.

Remeber to give yourself time to recover too – especially after highly emotional contacts with colleagues who are preparing to leave the organisation but who don’t want to go. These can be both upsetting and exhausting – giving yourself some time (even ten minutes out of the office) to wind down, will help ensure that this does not affect other aspects of your job. 

5. Don’t make assumptions

Towards the end of the employees time with you, plan how they want to mark the last day. Do they want a leaving do? Would they prefer a smaller scale send-off’? Acknowledging their contribution to the organisation is not just important to them but also to colleagues who want to say goodbye.

- Rick Hughes is Lead Advisor and Andrew Kinder is a member of the Executive Committee for Workplace at the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy. To find out about counselling and to search for counsellors in your area go to

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