There’s no such thing as an ex-employee

January 28, 2015, 4:00 PM UTC
Key Speakers As Microsoft Unveils Windows 8
Employees pass the Microsoft Corp. Windows 8 logo during an event in New York, U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012. Microsoft Corp. will be constrained in a contest against Apple Inc. in the market for handheld computers by unveiling a tablet that doesn't work with some of the most widely used downloadable applications. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Scott Eells — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Companies often focus on how employees are brought in, but what about when they leave? Chances are, there’s not much thought put into making this transition comfortable (for both parties) or even in considering the value of the opportunity. If onboarding is like a helping hand in, then offboarding can often be like a shove out into the cold.

What is the value, then, of getting it right?

Karma — kidding, sort of. In other words, you simply don’t know what the future holds. When an employee moves on, their relationship with your organization only ends on paper. Beyond that, their time with your company is a part of who they are, and that can manifest in any number of ways — they can be an ambassador (much like a customer) that sings your good praises and refers you job candidates; they could become an actual customer, or they might even come back to work for you someday. Even more passively, as long as they’re proud of your company’s spot on their resume, the result can only be good for your brand.

On the flipside, former employees who leave feeling less than excited about that same spot on their resumes might serve as a negative influence for your company. From being a detractor to your brand to actively discouraging others from applying to your company, the damage they can inflict could be significant and sustained over a long period of time. Depending on your industry, this might even include lost business.

Of course, there’s only so much you can do to affect how an employee will behave once they’ve left the building, and a lot of that needs to start well before they’re on the threshold of your door. That being said, there are a number of things you can do to foster a culture where employees aren’t riding into the sunset — but rather graduating to the next chapter in their lives. In turn, they’re not ex-employees. They’re alumni.

Here are a few ways to get started:

Follow the “golden rule”
This may seem obvious, but it should be the umbrella over all your interactions with an employee that’s leaving. Treat them the way you’d like them to treat your organization, your employees, and your brand once they’ve left.

Don’t take it personally
People move on. While this might be disruptive — especially in a smaller company — the first step toward making an employee feel comfortable about their departure is not reacting negatively. This moment isn’t about you. It’s about them making a big change in their life. In other words, it’s a good time to be supportive in whatever way you can.

Stay in touch
Rarely does leaving a company mean that the employee has left the face of the earth. And unless they’re headed deep into the Amazon, there’s likely little stopping you from staying in touch. Doing so not only helps reinforce the message that your company cares about the growth and development of its people, but also strengthens your long-term relationship with former employees and creates future opportunities. This can be as simple as a casual email or something more hands-on, like inviting them back to regular happy hours.

Support professional development
This is something that can be embedded in the culture and management of an organization on a day-to-day basis — but it also should be a specific element of your employee offboarding. Pretending that employees will be at your company for their entire lives is unrealistic. Instead, be willing to encourage and support great employees when it’s clear that, professionally, it’s time for them to move on — whether that’s to graduate school, a new company, or an entirely new career path. Be open to helping them network, providing them with referrals, or simply giving them unbiased advice.

Take the exit interview seriously
An employee who’s on their way out is often a great resource for feedback on what your company is doing well… and not so well. In fact, you may be able to get even deeper insights, as these folks are more likely to be candid about pain points than current employees. Conducting exit interviews also isn’t just a benefit to your company — it demonstrates to the exiting employee that their feelings and impressions are important, regardless of their employment status. It’s one last way to directly strengthen a long-term relationship before they’ve walked out the door, and a means to learn from your employees and continue to evolve your business.

Create an alumni network
There are a lot of ways you can organize an alumni network, but a great, easy place to start could be with a Facebook group. This provides a central location for you to stay in touch with former employees and also gives them a chance to stay in touch with each other and share experiences — a valuable resource for professionals who share a common background and maybe even similar resumes.

Make your company a great place to work
This is your responsibility before a potential employee is even hired. The better your work environment is, the less likely anyone will want to leave. But there is also a slightly more counterintuitive reasoning as well. Namely, that there are a lot of companies and jobs out in the world that simply aren’t as good as yours. When an employee moves on, you should hope that they look back on their time at your company and say, “Wow, that was truly a great place to work.”

These actions aren’t for ad hoc application, but instead a framework for a permanent change in how employees are treated by your company as they move on. Although realizing the full value of this change might take some time, the effect it will have on the individual level will be recognized immediately.

The next step? Plan your first homecoming.

David Reese is the vice president of people and culture at Medallia.

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