Staying in Touch With Former Employees Good for Business

It started with comments made during exit interviews. Employees about to leave SRA International Inc. in Fairfax, Va., would acknowledge they liked the company and would consider referring colleagues to the systems integrator.

Recruiters decided they should capitalize on this good will, said Kerri Koss Morehart, director of recruiting. The company recently launched a formal alumni program to encourage former employees to return to the firm and to refer others.

Former employees will get the company's annual report, a newsletter and a referral form. They'll be paid $500 for each successful referral, said Morehart, who hopes the program will increase the number of new hires SRA gets from referrals to 40 percent.

"The alumni recruiting program is just good business," Morehart said. "Part of our culture is building good will with people. This gives us a more formal way of reaching out and letting our former employees know we still care about them."

Alumni networks have existed informally at many large corporations for 20 years, but only recently have companies begun capitalizing on them, said Michael Neece, a human resources consultant in Hopkinton, Mass.

"Now companies, for their own benefit, are trying to formalize these [networks] or somehow track what happens to these people. That speaks to a trend just beginning," said Neece, president of Caseridus Inc. "Recruiting is becoming more of a relationship management practice where you establish a long-term relationship and at some point they hopefully will work for you."

In the past, "alumni would call their managers or buddies and see about opportunities to come back, just in their immediate area," said Sean Huurman, national director of recruiting for KPMG Consulting Inc. of McLean, Va.

Other alumni were hesitant to pick up the phone, particularly those who had left the firm for a dot-com and found themselves unhappy. The firm lost hundreds of employees to Internet-based firms during the recent dot-com boom, Huurman said.

"These people weren't coming back, because we hadn't opened the door for them. We needed to take the first step," he said.

KPMG launched its Alumni Boomerang Campaign internally in December 2000 and publicly announced it last month. A senior recruiter is dedicated to the program full time.

"We don't want this to be just an e-mail address. We want alumni to be able to talk to a real person and use this person as a resource," Huurman said.

First, the company sent holiday cards to about 4,000 former employees who left voluntarily and had performed well on the job. The cards brought about 200 phone calls to the recruiter, who is compiling information for an alumni directory.

"The response has been fantastic. We were correct in assuming if we took the first step, people would respond," Huurman said.

Like SRA, KPMG Consulting will also send periodic newsletters. Huurman also hopes to sponsor regional events, to develop a Web portal for alumni and to expand the company's employee referral bonus program to alumni.

"Our hope is that by maintaining the relationship, [alumni] will be able to refer business to each other, workers to each other. Maybe down the road, perhaps they'll say 'I want to help [KPMG Consulting] fill some of their positions,' " Huurman said.

Less formal initiatives work, too, for firms both big and small. Ingenium Corp., for example, keeps on its mailing list quality former employees and job candidates who accepted offers elsewhere.

"We find that a lot of times, people just come back after they see the kind of work we are winning, and the newsletters are very effective, because they spell out the culture of the organization," said Andre Lynch, president and chief executive officer of the e-business solutions firm in Upper Marlboro, Md.

Likewise, Electronic Data Systems Corp. "is very interested in staying in contact with our former employees," said Elizabeth Towson, a recruiting manager for the Plano, Texas, systems integrator. Although the company doesn't have a formal program, ex-employees receive occasional newsletters and are invited to some events.

"We want to keep the channels of communication open because [alumni] refer friends, neighbors, sons and daughters to us," Towson said.

Systems integrator Computer Sciences Corp. and IT consulting firm Accenture have formal alumni programs in the works.

Jimmy Jacobs, corporate director for employment relations for El Segundo, Calif., CSC, said the company plans to target ex-employees of the baby boomer generation who might want to return.

"It's a population out there that we know something about already, and the time it would take to bring someone up to [speed] would be less than the normal person off the street," said Jacobs, who hopes to add alumni chats to the company's Web site and expand its referral bonus program to alumni.

Chicago-based Accenture has a longtime, informal alumni network, said David Reed, director of U.S. recruiting. The firm will launch its formal program in May.

"There are a surprising number of people who leave and rejoin regardless of whether we had a formal program," Reed said. About 180 former employees have returned since September 2000.

"There's a lot of potential there, and that's before we even have a formal program," he said. "Certainly, recruiting is one reason why we believe an effective alumni relations program is in our best interest." Reed said his goal is that employee referrals, the alumni program and Internet recruiting will net about 60 percent of the firm's new hires.

However, recruiting isn't the only driver behind Accenture's alumni program, which will include a referral bonus program, receptions in selected cities nationwide and a Web site that will enable ex-employees to keep in touch with other alumni and access company information that isn't publicly available.

"The real reason why we want to develop our alumni network is to strengthen our network and leverage our professional relationships ... to help connect them with our businesses and our clients," Reed said. "Another reason is to identify business opportunities."

"Recruiting is driving this, but we have a more broad vision," he said.

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