Harvard Business Review: Turn Departing Employees Into Loyal Alumni

Harvard Business Review: Turn Departing Employees Into Loyal Alumni

Despite the high rate of churn in the labor market today, many companies pay scant attention to offboarding employees, and that´s a mistake.

Despite the high rate of churn in the labor market today, many companies pay scant attention to offboarding employees.


Drawing on their scholarly research and interviews with HR professionals, the authors recommend a number of best practices.

One is to plan well in advance for employees’ departures: Because few people stay at one company for their whole career, it’s important to have frank conversations throughout their tenure about their goals and prospects for advancement.

When employees do choose to leave or get laid off, managers should acknowledge their contributions, provide resources to support them through the transition, and use exit interviews as an opportunity for mutual learning. Companies should also create formal alumni programs to keep former workers connected to the organization. Together, these off-boarding practices can create a cadre of ex-employees who become valuable customers, suppliers, boomerang employees, mentors to current workers, and ambassadors for the firm.

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In this wholly informative white paper for Harvard Business Review, authors Alison M. Dachner (Associate Professor, John Carroll University), and Erin E. Makarius (Associate Professor, University of Akron), unpack the importance of cultivating a holistic approach to offboarding in order to turn departing employees into loyal alumni.

From Employees To Alumni: Key Takeaways To Work Through

1. Plan Well In Advance For Employees’ Departures

Very few people stay at one company for the duration of their career anymore. Their goals change, or it’s simply impossible to achieve it all at a single place of work.

When this happens, they go on to gain new skills and climb corporate ladders elsewhere. Reid Hoffman famously coined this a “Tour of Duty.”

Mckinsey is equally aware of this new business normal and onboards new recruits into the firm and alumni program simultaneously, anticipating their inevitable departure.

“The tighter the competition and the tougher the battle for talent in your industry, the more imperative it is to have dedicated and thoughtful offboarding efforts.” – George Sample, HR Business Partner, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

Quite simply, corporate workers of today realize that switching jobs throughout their careers is a given. Forward-thinking companies accept this and embrace the potential future opportunities.

As such, it makes sense to have conversations with employees about their goals and prospects for advancement throughout their tenure at your company, and beyond.  

2. Pave The Way For Engagement With Amicable Exits

When employees eventually leave to pursue other opportunities, management should acknowledge their contributions. This may require a shift in thinking away from traditional thought processes where walking out the door was a sign of disloyalty, to provide a warm welcome to their alumni program instead. 

Companies support this transition in different ways. Ordinarily, it might be to give extended access to employee perks, invites to get involved in social impact initiatives, reduced pricing for various services and goods, admission to alumni discount programs, or offers for wellness benefits.

“EnterpriseAlumni, which powers alumni programs for companies of all sizes, recommends engaging former workers by providing opportunities for them to volunteer or otherwise take part in community activities.”

In the context of a pandemic, employees who are laid off due to economic pressures or company restructuring should be provided with support and transitional resources. For some, it could be outplacement services or career assessment. Others – job-search coaching or individual brand development.

3. Exit Interviews Should Be Used As Opportunities For Mutual Learning

The offboarding process can be a great learning opportunity for employers. Companies can use it to gather data by following best practices for exit interviews.

However, for it to work well, these interviews need to be timed appropriately and feature standardized questions.

“The relationship with an employee is complex; it does not end just because the employment relationship is coming to an end.”

Exiting employees should also have the assurance that the information collected will be treated confidentially and only used to change practices and policies where necessary.

At this point, the feedback from employees on their way out the door can help firms to handle departures more efficiently in the future, creating a virtuous cycle.

4. Corporate Alumni Programs Come in Various Shapes and Sizes

In some cases, appointed staff oversee programs governed by specific membership guidelines and fees. In others, firms adopt a hands-off approach and create online groups where former employees take the lead in maintaining the network and connections.

“Offboarding can’t be one-size-fits-all. Not all departing employees will have the same needs, nor the same appetite for engaging on their way out.”

Companies like Boston Consulting Group, Microsoft, and Deloitte are more ambitious and have established entire network infrastructures using EnterpriseAlumni’s dedicated alumni web platforms, as well as social media and company newsletters to engage former employees.

Platforms are used by the organizations in question in various ways, such as to spotlight the achievements of alumni and current employees, or to include alumni in professional development workshops, speaker series, provide mentorship opportunities, exclusive offers, etc.

5. Alumni Engagement Makes Good Business Sense 

Among companies surveyed in a 2009 study conducted on behalf of the University of Twente, just 15% had formal alumni networks. A staggering 67% reported informal networks organized and headed up by employees. LinkedIn, the networking platform for business professionals, hosts close to 120,000 corporate alumni groups. Interestingly, most have no formal relationship with their previous employers.

“When people leave, they are going to talk about the company and the way they were treated on the way out,” – Mike Quinn, Senior VP for Integration, Synthomer.

The long and short of it being many professionals connect in groups that fall outside the control of their former organization. Expert research suggests that employers are not utilizing alumni programs to their full potential, and there’s room to benefit from structured communities that purposefully engage members.  

6. A Holistic Offboarding Program Paves The Way For Orderly Transition

A well-designed, holistic offboarding program introduced to the staff contingent during their tenure allows for transparency and removes the taboo from the act of walking out the door. This paves the way for an orderly transition when people exit as heightened emotions are kept in check during the offboarding process.

“You may wish people would stay, but if they can get a bigger and better job somewhere else, why wouldn’t you help them on that path?” – Tom Williams, former Senior VP of Store Operations and HR at Jo-Ann Stores.

Instead, the way is paved for lifelong relationships that serve both the company and ex-employee. It can also reduce the cost of turnover in the long run as employees are better prepared for offboarding, and managers can track satisfaction metrics and sentiment to anticipate the move.

Working relationships are complex and do not end simply because a person’s time in office is almost up. As such, employee offboarding should be a well-integrated, data-driven component of a business’ talent-management plan.

Final Thoughts

Download the white paper for expert insights on how to take a holistic approach to offboarding. For more information on how an alumni program can work for you, get in touch with the EnterpriseAlumni team today.

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