Many years ago, when I served as the editor of a small daily newspaper, I made young reporters a promise. "If you do your job well, after a year I'll help you move to a bigger paper in the chain -- and if I can't do that, then I'll help you move on elsewhere."
That wasn't an easy promise to make, because the company I worked for was very slow to approve filling positions. If I lost someone, whether it be to a promotion or because they quit, I might be a person down for months on an already strained staff.
Despite that, it still made sense for me to help people move on. My paper gained a reputation as a place that turned out reporters and editors who were ready for bigger things. That helped me recruit better people, and was more personally satisfying. At your small business, it's important to follow the same kind of policy and make sure that you don't hold people back just because they can help you.
How do you handle talent?
A small business only has so much room to develop and promote talented people. It's important that you nurture the skills of everyone who comes to work for you so they can grow and take on more important positions.
The problem is that sometimes you will have an employee ready for an opportunity that you don't have available. If that happens, it's important to have a dialogue with that employee. Find out what he or she wants and be honest about your ability to make it happen.
It's possible that your employee would be happy to grow slowly as long as there's an eventual destination at your company that fits their needs. In other cases, it may be clear that someone -- even someone you value a lot who likes working for you -- needs to move on.
How can you help?
If you're honest with an employee who's ready for more than you can give, he or she can start looking with your blessing. In some cases, you may even help someone move on by making an introduction.
Of course, you don't want to send someone to a company you directly compete with, but you should still help where you can. This will take some of the mystery out of the process. Yes, you will lose the employee, but you'll have a longer lead time than two week's notice to prepare for their departure.
In addition, if you know a person is leaving, that may open up an opportunity for someone else to move up. Letting one person go may allow you to keep another.
It hurts, but it's necessary
If you act selfishly, your employee will either leave without looping you in or stagnate in their current position. And while it hurts to lose people, losing them to better jobs or promotions makes your company an attractive place to work for potential new hires.
Yes, your first responsibility is to your business, but treating employees right is a long-term move that helps make that happen. Do the right thing by people and it will increase loyalty, make your company an attractive place to work, and ultimately help your business.