EHS Succession Planning: 7 Steps to Take Before Key Employees Retire

Do you have a succession plan in place for retiring employees?

 If not, now is the time to create one: A staggering 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age every day, according to the AARP.

As these veteran workers retire, they take decades of “tribal knowledge” with them — knowledge that can take years to rebuild or worse, be lost forever.

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What’s more, the increased burden on remaining employees and new hires can contribute to even higher rates of turnover.

So what can you do to preserve institutional knowledge and ease the transition? In this article, we’ll look at what a succession plan is, why you need one, and the steps you should take before key employees retire.

What is succession planning, and why is it important?

Succession planning helps ensure that the company keeps running smoothly when a key employee moves on to a new company, gets promoted, or retires. It involves identifying successors for critical positions and preparing them to take over those roles, as well as taking steps to preserve institutional knowledge in the event that a key team member leaves the company. 

What could happen if I don’t have a succession plan?

If you don’t have a succession plan in place for key positions, you’ll lose valuable time when employees inevitably leave or retire. This can negatively impact your entire organization and bring your operations to a grinding halt. Some of the risks of not having a succession plan for key EHS staff include: 


  • Losing critical institutional knowledge
  • Potential for non-compliance
  • Disruption to operations
  • Long time to hire and train new employees
  • Added burden on existing employees can impact morale and drive additional turnover

How do I do succession planning?

Now that you know what succession planning is and why it’s so important, let’s look at some of the steps you can take to prepare for when key employees retire. 

Identify critical positions

The first step in succession planning is to identify critical roles within your organization. These include not only senior roles like your EHS Director or VP of Safety, but also other key positions at all levels of your company. Ask yourself what would happen if this individual left or retired. How would that impact your day-to-day operations and compliance efforts? If the answer is that it would have a significant impact, then you will want to start thinking about a succession plan for this employee. 

One mistake many people make is to wait until an employee hands in their resignation to start thinking about succession planning. That’s less of an issue if the employee announces their retirement months in advance. It’s a bigger problem if you find out at the last minute that they’re leaving and you don’t have a plan in place. A sudden retirement can come as a shock, so it’s wise to be as prepared as possible. 

Locate and develop future leaders

Once you’ve identified critical positions, you can start thinking about people within your organization who can move into those roles. You need a successor with the knowledge, skills, and training to step into that position in the event of turnover. One benefit of finding these successors internally is that they already know your organization and can get up to speed in their new position more quickly than someone outside your company. 

Although you might have someone in mind, don’t just assume this person is interested in moving out of their current role. Talk to them about their future plans within the organization. Are they interested in taking on additional responsibilities in the future? If so, now is the time to start providing professional development opportunities and giving these individuals projects or assignments that will grow their leadership skills. 

Don’t rely on memory

Picture your most experienced employee — that person who’s been around 10, 20, or 30+ years. Now, imagine they retired tomorrow! Could you quickly locate all of their important files? Would they know exactly which tasks they were working on, and when they’re due?

When you rely on memory to keep track of documents and tasks, you run the risk of losing critical information or, at a minimum, wasting massive amounts of time piecing things together when someone retires.

You don’t want to have critical data stored in a spreadsheet that’s buried on the retiree’s computer, for example, or miss a deadline because it’s written on a sticky note on their computer monitor.

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Instead, now is the time to create a central record of tasks and information. The best way to do this, as many organizations have found, is with an EHS software system. Using EHS software makes it easier to organize and share important documents and information.

Good EHS software also lets you assign tasks to individuals and view them in a central calendar, so you know exactly what each person is working on and can quickly reassign those tasks if they leave.

Document processes and workflows

Of course, it’s not enough to know what someone is working on — you also need to know how they do it.

Now is the time to start documenting these processes. That can be as simple as having employees take notes as they perform a particular task. If you’re using EHS software, these documents can be attached directly to tasks to provide a record of what’s required for future obligations.

An added benefit of documenting your processes: you’ll be able to identify opportunities to optimize your workflows or even automate manual tasks so you can save time in the future. 

Let successors shadow retiring employees

If you know in advance that a key employee is retiring, you might want to consider job shadowing. Job shadowing is a type of on-the-job training that involves spending time following an employee in their job. Shadowing offers a period of overlap between the employees, and can last anywhere from a few hours to a week or more.

 In any case, it’s a valuable time for both retirees and their replacements. For incoming employees, shadowing offers the opportunity to observe day-to-day tasks, learn systems and processes, and ask questions that might otherwise have been overlooked. For outbound employees, it’s a chance to pass along knowledge as well as gain a sense of closure.

Offer partial retirement options

Part-time, remote work, and consulting arrangements are just a few of the ways employees can gradually transition from full-time work to retirement. According to a study by the University of Michigan, more retirement-age employees are opting for partial retirement.

 It’s a win-win: employees get to continue collecting a paycheck while they ease into retirement, and organizations get to keep veteran employees around to share their knowledge and wisdom — albeit in a slightly different role.

Don’t wait until the retirement party

The sooner you start planning for succession, the better prepared your organization will be in the event that key employees retire. The best time to start planning for a successful transition is six months to a year in advance. The second best time is today.

While it does take some effort upfront, succession planning will save your organization time and headaches down the road.

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Note: This post was originally published in 2019 and has been updated for freshness, comprehensiveness, and clarity. 



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