An organisation I worked with celebrated 40 years of its existence in 2019, flew down all its staff from across 6 cities in India. We congregated in a two-day extravaganza to reflect on its founding, evolution and its future. One of my most memorable moments from this event was meeting so many of its ex-staff, who were invited to join in the fun and reflection. I enjoyed hearing them reminiscing about their days in the organisation, it gave me so many insights into how the organisation grew into the here and now.
When an employee leaves an organisation after spending a significant part of their professional years there, is that the end of their relationship with the organisation? Our modern workplaces have evolved into being less like offices and more like communities, where we gain more than just wages in return for our labour. An employee’s lifecycle does not necessarily end after they exit. Whether an employee spends two years or fifteen years in a workplace, they have made it a significant part of their life for that period. They have engaged with the organisation’s values and ethos and added their own uniqueness to its culture and ways of working. It is only natural that the employee should continue to be engaged after their exit.
Powerful brand advocates
V. Narayanan (Nans), Co-founder and Director of Zevigo, a Singapore-based company in the field of enterprise bots agrees, ‘As someone who spent nearly two decades in a multinational IT company, I serve on its alumni executive committee. We are an independent, member-operated association and host learning, networking and social events. These powerful ways of building community have become so popular that the company even encourages its existing staff to attend our events.’
While many multinational companies, in the technology and consulting sectors engage their alumni very well through structured programmes and well-defined strategies, ‘out of sight is out of mind’ is a reality for most workplaces.
This is a pity because consistently engaging your alumni base makes good business sense: Alumni can be powerful brand advocates, inspiring a strong pipeline of talent through word-of-mouth or other means (as noted here, companies that have alumni groups observe a significant spike in their glassdoor scores); be potential rehires or boomerang candidates, answering your quest for elusive talent; mentors, coaches and resource personnel for your current and future staff and projects, that could bolster your learning and development offerings or even directly contribute to your bottom line by being future clients. Monica Pillai, a Bangalore-based Senior HR leader who has designed and run alumni engagement programmes has seen some former employees become the biggest clients of the organisations.
Walking the talk
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), estimates that an organisation spends $4,700 on an average to hire someone new. Boomeranging employees, or rehiring employees who leave a company, could be a powerful recruitment tool. "We love boomerang employees at Teach For India. In the last five months alone, we have had eight people return. We try to engage our Alumni in active projects, for example: we offer them part-time opportunities to sit on the selection committee of our Fellowship Program. These kinds of opportunities lead them to boomerang over time,’ says Tanya Arora, Senior Director of the People function at non-profit organisation, Teach for India, which has a dedicated alumni engagement team.
An international survey by UKG, an HR, payroll and workforce management solutions provider, revealed that 43% of employees who quit their jobs since March 2020 revealed that they were better off at their old jobs, with 20% of them returning to their old employers. ‘The biggest challenge in a new job is to understand organisational culture and the new work environment. Boomerang employees with their familiarity with the people, processes and culture make great ‘new’ joiners because they can start being productive from day 1,’ opines Nans, whose previous organisation has a separate hiring track for alumni who want to return.
Boomeranging to make an impact
Familiarity with systems and culture plays a big role in attracting women who may be returning to work after a caregiving break, says Monica. ‘When these candidates are able to return to a fold that they are familiar with, their comfort with an environment they are already oriented with can make a difference in them staying in the workforce,’ she adds.
Conversely, alumni networks can source opportunities and provide referrals during mass layoffs and management reshuffles. ‘I have seen these networks rally around people during crises and downtimes. Alumni who are entrepreneurs or are hiring across teams and markets can be key to matching outbound talent to the right opportunity,’ explains Nans.
‘Alumni who have gone on to other jobs or started their own ventures should be encouraged to come back and speak to staff about varied themes and topics like making a hybrid work format successful or using artificial intelligence for addressing operational pain points,’ he adds.
Apart from periodic talks and knowledge sessions, they could also serve as mentors to current staff. ‘Having successfully navigated the system and growing their career, alumni also have an edge and should be leveraged to mentor current staff in their professional development journeys,’ says Nans. Someone who has already been in a leadership role, for instance, could help coach a person aspiring to grow into a similar role or play the role of a peer counsellor, during challenging times.
How to keep the ‘spark’ alive?
To facilitate two-way alumni engagement, companies should consider building a dedicated portal. Such a portal could enable tactical functions, such as downloading pay slips or provident fund or experience certificate records, but also allow them to engage at strategic levels, like, keeping abreast with organisational and sectoral happenings, and signing up for learning and networking events. Some cost-effective ways to keep engagement going with alumni include a quarterly newsletter to inform and inspire, an annual survey to learn what the alumni are currently doing and hosting a once-a-year social event. ‘Investing time in people allows for win-win partnerships and collaborations. There will always be good matches and better matches but both sides need to feel like they are benefiting from this,’ notes Tanya.
‘Alumni slack channels for instance are virtually a no-cost way to begin engaging your former employees, irrespective of your size and form,’ advises Monica. ‘Getting your leadership on these forums to post opinions and thoughts, and organising local chapter meetups of your alumni are all simple ways to kickstart your engagement journey even if you don’t have a dedicated budget for it. At the end of the day, you want to demonstrate to your alumni that they’re on your mind,’ she adds.
Some global examples.
BCG has a robust Alumni Relations Department- for over two and a half decades, its staff meet in an annual alumni day event, in 80 locations across the world. In addition to this flagship event, alumni have access to virtual town hall events, career services and a learning library. In addition, the alumni websites profile the career trajectories of some of its alumni, to serve as inspiration for its alumni community and current employees.
Salesforce is another example of a thriving alumni program- not only do they have a blog and podcast series that captures current, former and boomerang employee’s career journeys, but they have an alumni referral program. If the referral is hired, Salesforce donates $500 in the alumnae’s name to a non-profit organisation of their choice.
Microsoft’s Alumni Network is registered as a separate non-profit entity. It charges a yearly fee for alumni who wish to be members, in exchange for access to events in the headquarters. Alumni are also eligible for discounts on Microsoft products.