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Gaining knowledge from retiring employees

Knowledge transfer is important, particularly when an employee is getting close to retiring. But how do you get that knowledge from someone unwilling to share? In this expert response, site editor Yvette Francino talks about exploring motivations and building relationships based on mutual trust and respect.

How do we get retiring employees to share the wealth of THEIR accumulated knowledge with younger employees who need the support of older experiences without alienation?

This is an interesting question. In order to properly motivate someone to do something they are reluctant to do, the first thing to tackle is to understand the reluctance. Next, treat them with respect in the requests that you make. With understanding and respect, you usually can find a way to form a trusting relationship in which both people help one another.

Why are they reluctant to share knowledge?

The first thing to understand is the reason for the reluctance. People who are being asked to involuntarily retire, regardless of their age, are understandably going to feel much more alienated than those who are voluntarily retiring. Or maybe the question relates to older employees in general, with the assumption that they will be retiring.

Are they reluctant to share knowledge because they are an older person sharing with a younger person? Or is the issue that they are being asked to retire when they would like to keep working? Let’s look at both of these situations and talk about solutions.

Age biases

SSQ has published a couple of relatively recent articles regarding older employees. The first was a Q&A with Navot Peled, CEO of Gizmox Ltd, entitled How new Web application platforms put dev/test pros’ careers at risk claiming that older employees are at a disadvantage in their ability to learn new technologies.  I refuted that article, by the way, in my Software Quality Insights post: Too old to learn new technologies?  Never . In the second article, Rise in hidden software glitches caused by programmer retirements, Glitch author Jeff Papows felt that the loss of knowledge of retiring employees is a major contributing factor to some of the major “glitches” in the software industry.

In both of these interviews, older employees were singled out -- in one case, as people who may not be able to learn new technologies as quickly as others, and in another case, as employees who have valuable knowledge of older technologies that younger employees don’t have. Both of these attitudes may contribute to reasons why an older person close to retirement may be reluctant to share knowledge.

Everyone would like to feel valued. It may be possible that older employees feel that holding onto knowledge that others don’t have is the only thing that makes them valuable.

Build a relationship that is based on much more than wanting to gain knowledge from someone because they are leaving. Start building a relationship of trust early by showing respect with each interaction.

Yvette Francino, SSQ Site Editor


If older employees are treated as though they are too old to learn a technology, they will not feel respected. If the only interest a person has in them is to gain the knowledge they have, they will feel that they are giving away the one thing that they have that makes them valuable.

In order to motivate older employees to share knowledge, there first should not be negative biases made in regards to their age. It shouldn’t be assumed that because they are older they cannot learn new technologies. It shouldn’t be assumed that because they are older they won’t want to share their knowledge. Unwillingness to share knowledge is something that many employees, young or old, might have in common in cases where they feel that it is what is making them valuable. They sometimes hold onto it for job security, thinking if they give away this knowledge, they will be more at risk for losing their jobs.


If the reason for the reluctance to share knowledge is due to retirement, my guess is that we’re talking about involuntary retirement. In my experience, people who are voluntarily retiring are very willing to share knowledge. 

Again, however, if someone fears retirement or the possibility of being asked to retire, there is a likelihood that he would want to hold onto knowledge as a matter of job security.

Knowledge transfer when there is a layoff

One of the most difficult management tasks I had was telling my entire QA staff that the team was being outsourced. They were being asked to stay on board long enough to train the staff from India who would be replacing them. They were very de-motivated. It’s very difficult to have much enthusiasm for passing along knowledge that will help the organization who is telling you they no longer need your services.


In all of these cases, the best thing anyone can do is to show understanding and respect. Build a relationship that is based on much more than wanting to gain knowledge from someone because they are leaving. Start building a relationship of trust early by showing respect with each interaction.

Managers and leaders should foster an environment of openly sharing of knowledge and reward employees who do this. If employees, regardless of their age, are not showing willingness to share knowledge, or are treating team members disrespectfully, this should be addressed as soon as possible. Waiting until someone is retiring is too late. Perhaps the person is retiring because they have been treated with disrespect.

In the end, the question of motivating retiring employees to share knowledge comes down to the relationship. If the relationship is one of mutual trust and respect, most people, young or old, are willing to share their knowledge.

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