If you employ and manage people in a high-performance culture, there is one near-certainty. Some of them will quit or be fired.
And there’s another near-certainty. It can be hard to forecast who will quit or be fired well in advance.
The traditional way of looking at the “return on investment” on the training and coaching of employees is that it is truncated the moment they walk out of that door. This view can be reflected in company behaviour: I’ve seen and heard of companies that have fired executives while they were on vacation, on the day of their son’s high school graduation and the night before their kids go back to school. Companies have had armed guards escort people out of the office (and, no, not people who broke the law, simply people whose departments were being shuttered) and have not allowed people to return to their office to gather their things. Beyond these petty humiliations of those asked to leave, many of us know executives who have disparaged individuals who have quit to work for another company (the old “I was just about to fire him anyway”). And many companies simply “wave goodbye” to their employees who take career breaks to care for their families.
But there is a different way.
Think of all that we are learning about the extraordinary power of networks; and think of all the time, effort and money companies are investing to build that network. Your former employees are a ready-made network, one that has certainly demonstrated an interest in your company. Where else can you find 10s or (for some companies) 1,000s of people who know your company well?
So rather than “Don’t let the door hit you in the a*s on the way out,” how about treating these people like an “alumni network”? Be respectful of them when they leave (after all, you have plenty of employees, they have only one career); help some find their next opportunity if the fit is not right for your company; keep them posted with company updates; tap into their knowledge and ask their views; invite them back for cocktails; where appropriate (think people on a career break), offer them part-time or overflow work; and celebrate their successes.
For those who say this is not do-able at scale, Exhibit 1 is McKinsey. That firm is by its nature an “up-or-out” environment. And yet I can’t tell you how proud many of its former consultants are to have the McKinsey name on their resume or how many times I’ve heard them recommend McKinsey for a project. They must be doing something right, and part of that something is that they support their people in finding their next job when they don’t receive the next-level promotion.
A place to start: 95% of women who take a career break for family say they will not return to their old company when and if they resume their careers; they point to feeling “disrespected” when they leave, often like they are “giving up.” But who is more valuable to a company than someone they trained? And yet the value of that education accrues to another company if they return to work. A sense of respect and continued engagement will go a long way with this group.
Let’s face it: some group of your current employees is going to become your former employees. And as the pace of change in business increases, it is arguable that your attrition rate will also increase, and this network will grow. These folks will be asked about you. Think about what happens if more of them say something nice about your company; and if every one of them sends you one piece of business each year, your business will be bigger. Recognizing that your investment in your employees can extend beyond the day they leave can substantially change the value of that investment. Smart companies will recognize this and begin asking themselves not just how this employee will perform on this or that project, but also how they can give them a rich professional experience, help them build their skills and continue the relationship after they leave. And they will also recognize that it can have a positive impact on employees who stay, as they see the company demonstrate respect for their peers.