Over my career, I have witnessed two types of cultures in service-based companies when it comes to how they think and relate to ex-employees. This particular cultural attribute makes the difference between good and bad company reputations. Many of my friends talk about their children having a “half-full” or “half-empty” attitude toward life. The same is true of companies in how they deal with past employees.
In service companies, the culture relative to handling of ex-employees is very important and noticeable, because the whole inventory and asset factory of these companies is people who go home at the end of every day. Service company reputations are built on how they handle people. The attitudes can span generations of employees and set their engrained personalities. They either end up being positive and appreciative for past contributions of other colleagues, or negative and critical for anyone not regarded as a future contributor. As easily as reputations are built, they can be quickly destroyed.
Great companies celebrate and honor past contributions of present and past employees. They realize that previous generations and past performance have built the company and client base for which the current management and employee populations are now beneficiaries. These companies have alumni connections, encourage future participation, celebrate departures, offer alumni websites, plan reunions, write reference letters and create links long after they have left the firm. They don’t just do it because of concern that a past employee could become a client, but because they are a real, caring and appreciative community. They see the glass as half full, and really care about people other than themselves.
In these excellent companies, when a person leaves for another job, they fully realize that this individual contributed to their success. They accept that most prior employees have left for good reasons. Some left for a better career opportunity; or rationale family reasons. Some leave to pursue a new endeavor they could not within the company. And, unfortunately, some leave because they could not get along with their supervisor. These positive-led companies don’t take the position that the departees are traitors or disloyal. They certainly don’t openly depreciate past contributions. They usually stay in contact, hoping that someday these individuals will return. These companies’ appreciation for past service causes them to assist ex-employees in their future lives as much as possible.
Look at strong, positive alumni clubs such as the U.S. Marines, where you are a Marine for life well after your service has ended. Even those that did not enjoy their lives in the service remember the organization fondly afterward. Their reputations were protected and they are remembered for the great things they did, not their faults.
Insecure and negative companies do the opposite. They only embrace current employees and are generally arrogant. They see every resignation as a desertion or rejection. It is almost a self-preservation attitude—that the departee has the problem. The company’s reactive attitude is to focus on inventing why they are pleased the individual is gone. I have seen past stars become present dogs overnight in these companies. They don’t have alumni programs and generally are totally dismissive on any past positive contributions of ex-employees.
What these negative companies don’t realize is their depreciating actions make enemies, instead of friends, for life. These departing employees get angrier when they hear through friends how they have been bad-mouthed after they left. They then become leveraged broadcasters to an even wider community, disparaging their previous employer. They wreck brands. If they go to competitors, they will fight hard to beat their past employee with every means possible. If they become clients, they will always remember how they were treated and provide no favors. And why? When people give their life work or talent for over half their waking days as an employee to a company in order to make that company successful, they expect respect. If, after they depart, the departed company reputes them as poor-performing traitors, nothing could be more emotionally charging.
Some might argue that the negative de-personalization of departees is a natural result of scale. This theory argues that larger companies lose control of their cultures due to layering and geographical dispersion. I disagree. Some of the greatest alumni-oriented companies are quite large. McKinsey has to be the poster child of alumni-centered companies with some 18,000 employees around the world. Their alumni continue to be devoted to McKinsey and often return or divert business to their former firms. I find this amazing due to the fact many McKinsey alumni are “up-or-out” departees! No, I don’t think negative de-personalization is a result of scale; rather, I think it is the insecure tone from the top.
So who are the principle people responsible for cultivating the company culture to departing employees? They are all the senior executives. They set the standard, they own the culture and they discourage the internal negative banter. They set up the alumni appreciation attitudes and they set the “tone of the top.” A company is not much different from a family or a school in setting the standards of behavior and values. What the parents advocate will inculcate the school culture very quickly, even from one layer to another.
I would implore readers to ask this of their culture: “Which kind of company do you work for? Do they embrace and honor past employee contributions? Do they have departure parties that the management personally attends? Do they tolerate or create hallway banter about the negative attributes and stories of departees? Do they have past stars that suddenly become dogs after they leave? Do they celebrate and respect contribution, or throw people out the door because they are defending rejection?
And don’t think the surviving employees don’t notice the way the company treated the last departee who was their friend. Most existing employees believe that in the future the company probably will treat them just like they treated their departing colleague before. Don’t throw away goodwill as absolution of responsibility or failing to respect the employees’ reasons for leaving. Be a “half-full” company and retain your friends. It will pay dividends to have more friends than enemies.
© 2014 Robert Uhler and THE UHLER GROUP. All rights reserved.