Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Tapping into the Ex-Employee Network

(first posted on BlogHer.org)

Betsy The Devine's post on the "Puff Club" Reunion flickr photos got me thinking about business. Yes, believe it or not, a baby reunion summoned thoughts of jobs past. Specifically about the companies I have left, or who have left me, over the years, and all of the reunions I've attended (and run like hell from, depending) in the ensuing decades. These are the events during which old employees -- and sometimes current employees -- get together to drink alcoholically and laugh hysterically until the wee hours. They remind you 1) why you are glad you don't work there anymore 2) how much you miss your old workmates, and 3) why you took smoke breaks every 20 minutes.

There is something to be said for reunions.

When I was relieved of employment (along with the engineering group and a couple other mid-level management stragglers) post-childbirth by one dysfunctionally enmeshed technology company in the 90s, we ex- and current employees were so inextricably linked that reunions happened weekly. As the ex-company grew at a faster rate than the current comapny, and our ex-work-force established a more effective communication network than the internal version, company news was transmitted faster and more efficiently to non-employees than it was to employees. This generally frustrates businesses, some of which put in place policies that discourage fraternization with ex-employees.

Here's a call for companies to do just the opposite. Rather than carving the line between your ex-employees and current employees in concrete, why not encourage -- heck, even sponsor -- regular reunions where past and present employees can get together for conversation, laughing, complaining, mocking, and the like. Instead of pretending that these get togethers -- and these conversations -- aren't taking place (because they are), embrace them. Stand unafraid in the crosshairs of where past and present employees cross paths. What do you have to gain?

1) You will create emissaries of good will, fueled by the ability to be honest.
2) You will show that you are defined by every human being who has entered your doors at one time or another.
3) Often the best talent is the talent that RETURNS to the organization after going elsewhere--you will keep in touch with them.
4) You will tap into the most effective local/regional grapevine available--your ex-employee network. It's already operational. Why not add your voice?
5) You will demystify the "outside" which generally seems pretty damn alluring from the inside.

It's like the cheese bra lady. Her best ideas--and creativity--will now be used outside of her former company. There is no going back for her former employer and its clueless decision to axe her because of her cheese-like non-dairy bra. However, inviting her to the next company reunion -- even honoring her, admitting the company's shortsightedness in a funny way -- might bring that business one step closer to getting a clue.

Or at least getting some laughs and head nods.


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