March 29, 2021 at 11:00 AM ET

Harvard Business Review: Turn Departing Employees Into Loyal Alumni

Erin and Alison discuss their HBR research on an organization's off-boarding process and the exponential impact of keeping Alumni connected.

In this episode of the Alumni Leaders Podcast, EnterpriseAlumni welcomes panelists Erin Makarius, Ph.D., Associate Professor at the College of Business at the University of Akron, and Alison Dachner, Ph.D., Associate Professor at the College of Business at John Carroll University. 

Erin is known for her research on organizational behavior and HR, focusing on managing work-life and technological and international boundaries. Her work has been published in notable industry journals such as Organization Science.

Alison is a professor in the Management department at John Carroll University and has a strong interest in team training and the future of employee development.

Collectively, they penned a thoroughly researched white paper for the much-respected Harvard Business Review that discussed the importance of cultivating a holistic approach to offboarding in order to turn departing employees into loyal alumni.

This included an analysis of the approaches employed by various highly-regarded organizations, including McKinsey & Company, Amazon, McDonald’s, Apple, Hubspot, Microsoft, Deloitte, BCG, P&G, NFL, Chevron, Booz Allen Hamilton, and more.

During this webinar, EA, Erin, and Alison took a deep dive into the authors’ research on the problem, opportunity, and recommendations for maintaining a relationship with former employees.

Three Key Takeaways To Work Through

1. The Problem, Opportunity, and Recommendations In A Nutshell

The Problem: Organizations devote a great deal of attention to onboarding but very little to offboarding. That’s shortsighted, given the growing churn in the workforce today.

The Opportunity: A well-managed offboarding process can turn employees into loyal alumni who become customers, suppliers, boomerang employees, mentors to current workers, and ambassadors for the firm.

The Recommendations: Companies should prepare for employees’ departures well in advance, recognize people’s contributions when they leave, conduct thoughtful exit interviews, provide support for the transition (tailoring it to individual’s needs), and create formal programs to keep alumni connected to the organization.

2. Alumni Programs Should Be Pre-Designed To Be Proactive Rather Than Reactive

For an alumni program to be effective, it has to be in place before something momentous like COVID-19 rolls around. Many companies have rolled out alumni support platforms in the wake of mass layoffs, but their departing employees were not necessarily all too happy to get on board.

Many people were feeling very negative towards their organizations and experienced it as a sugar-coating approach. However, when an alumni program is embedded in a company’s talent management system, there is a far bigger chance of it being successful.

In fact, Erin and Alison found through their research that companies that were the most successful were those who enrolled people in their alumni program from the moment they joined the company. This way, they understood the benefits very well right from the start.

It also showed employees that their employer understood that they would probably not spend their entire careers at this particular organization and that there is a culture of mobility. These are all very positive things when it comes to the employer brand.

3. The Ideal Alumni Solution For Any Given Company Will Always Be Unique

There is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach that will do the trick when it comes to alumni engagement. In order for a program to work, it has to be built from the ground up to support the company and employees for whom it is intended. Otherwise, it will be inauthentic and won’t work.

It has to account for the culture of the organization, as well as the goals of implementing the program in the first place. This will require an analysis of existing practices, policies, and programs that are already in place. There should also be an aim to integrate it seamlessly into the broader talent management process.

Highlights and Notable Quotes From The Session 

COVID-19 has shifted alumni engagement from a cost center to a profit center.

During the past year, many companies were in a position where they had to let a lot of people go whether they wanted to or not.

This has highlighted the need for alumni programs substantially, as businesses saw first-hand how reducing their in-house talent pool could affect business outcomes. Suddenly, it was much clearer that there is a real need to stay in touch with employees in whom they’ve invested so much time and energy.

A focus on retention and a focus on the climate for mobility don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

In fact, by creating a culture in which employees feel that they have the ability to move on and grow without too much friction, they could very well be more likely to stay.

After all, if your business is known for developing its people and crafting jobs in alignment with employee strengths and challenges, it will put you out in front of the pack when it comes to sourcing and retaining top talent in the long run.

Companies need to realize the element of credit associated with stellar alumni.

Business leaders would do well to move beyond the fear of losing their most talented employees to a place where they can accept credit for having shaped exceptional talent as a part of their team. After all, if your business is known as a good place to poach people from, surely you are doing something very right?

By changing this perspective and shining the spotlight on former employees’ achievements, companies can rewrite the overall narrative in their favor. These employees go on to their next great job because of the learning and training you provided, and you are allowed to take credit for it.

If you can relate to the challenges associated with maintaining strong ties with departing talent, listen in to this one-hour webinar. Learn more about the process of making room for alumni in your company ecosystem and how your whole enterprise can benefit from doing so.


Erin Makarius, Associate Professor at College Of Business at The University Of Akron
Alison Dachner, Associate Professor at John Carroll University

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