Alumni versus ex-employee


This tweet (and thanks to Chris Coyier for tweeting this line from Jennifer Dary’s talk at Convergese 2014) really hits home for me.

There are lots of reasons people leave companies. Not all of them are bad. Some of them have to do with the company and some of them have to do with the individual. Companies evolve, they change, they move locations, they pivot, they grow and shrink, they focus on different products, hire different types of people, leadership changes and colleagues move on. All of these changes can change the culture of a company and influence people’s reasons for working there.

People change too. What I looked for in an employer when I was 20 is different from what I look for now. Where and how I want to work has also changed. For many friends, having a family has dramatically changed what they seek in an employer and how they interact with them. And sometimes after doing something for a while some people just need to change.

I don’t think the relationship between an employee and an employer should be binary, linear, or singular. We build relationships by being understanding of the needs of others, by having empathy. It’s taken a long and painful road for me to learn that, with some very bad professional relationship experiences as teaching tools.

Now when someone says to me “Look I want to do something different” my response is always: “How can I help?” And if there isn’t something internally that works then that help extends to finding alternatives outside the company.

That outcome really doesn’t have to be a negative one when a colleague makes a voluntary departure. Reward the loyalty they provided you by being supportive of their need to change. That is what makes an “employer of choice”. It’s also personally and professionally rewarding. I like making folks happy and I love that I expand my network doing it.

Nor does that outcome have to be the end of a relationship forever. That person is might not be a fit for the company right now but they might be again in the future. Being supportive and positive about their departure leaves that door open. Allowing you to bring them back together with the experience and the perspective of their intervening role or roles. If you’ve burnt the bridge with them then you close yourself off from that opportunity.1

So treat your former colleagues as alumni and, more importantly, as potential advocates for the company. Their goodwill has real value. They are potential recruiters for you, allowing you access to their networks. They are advocates for you with candidates who seek out their opinion on you as a potential employer. They are promoters and distributors of your products and services. They may even be future colleagues again.

  1. Oh and sometimes that working relationship might just be reversed. I’ve worked for someone who was previously a peer and I’ve worked for someone who previously worked for me. Both situations were enhanced by the trust and loyalty we had through our previous relationship. ↩︎