Long reads

The importance of creating 'good leavers'

9 Dec 2021 By Elizabeth Howlett

Employees choosing to move on might seem disastrous – but firms that invest in offboarding stand to reap the benefits

Your employees might be leaving you for someone else. It’s not an easy thing to accept, but it is inevitable. So says Angela O’Connor, former HRD and chief executive of The HR Lounge: “You can’t hang on to people forever,” she warns, adding that it’s “ridiculous” for employers to assume they can. And if the data is to be believed, more people than ever are considering breaking up with their employer as we exit the pandemic. Dubbed the Great Resignation, plenty of studies have found a substantial increase in workers handing in their notice in recent months – for example, a survey of more than 6,000 adults by recruiter Randstad UK found that seven in 10 (69 per cent) say they feel confident to move to a new job by January 2022. The pandemic has also altered people’s attitudes towards their work-life balance and priorities, meaning many are seeking new careers or opportunities; Jill Cotton, PR and marketing manager EMEA at Glassdoor, points out that Covid has “forced many people to reevaluate what they want from work, and people are taking time out to retrain and look at other options”. 

So with an apparent uptick in people reconsidering their career options, it’s more vital than ever that employers work hard to maintain relationships with their staff – and though this is of course true for current employees, it’s also the case once an employee decides to leave. And those organisations that get ‘offboarding’ right stand to reap a range of benefits further down the line. David Collings, professor of human resource management at Dublin City University, says a shift in attitude towards leavers has been a long time coming. “For too long, firms have had a fixed view of what happens at the end of someone’s time at an organisation,” he explains. Instead of forcing an employee to stagnate in a role when no suitable internal promotions are available, Collings says organisations should instead work with them to find a suitable external opportunity, then keep the channel of communication open, “so when a role does become available, they can reach out”.

Both rehires and ‘boomerang’ employees – workers who leave an organisation and return after a short period of time – Collings notes, have become “more pronounced” as a result of the pandemic. “There have been lots of organisations forced to downsize through furlough and ‘fire and rehire’ so there’s a larger pool of people who are potential boomerangs,” he says. The potential for so-called ‘boomerang’ hires has become so great during Covid that some organisations have begun factoring it into their recruitment planning and strategies, explains Jon Sleightholme, recruitment business partner at The Curve Group. “We’re increasingly seeing employers looking at having a boomerang attraction strategy. It’s more popular with bigger companies, but smaller businesses should think about it too,” he advises. “If someone leaves and they’ve done well, there’s a lot of potential – you want to be able to attract them back because they are trusted assets.” 

But what is the best way of implementing a good offboarding process and making sure the employment relationship ends on good terms in order to potentially tempt leavers back in future? First and foremost, employers that want to make sure the split is amicable need to hide the inconvenience of losing talent, says O’Connor. “Separate your feelings, because it’s human to think ‘what am I going to do?’,” she explains. “You have to put that in the other box and celebrate their success. Talk to them about their new job… and find out how you can help them before they leave.” 

Employer brand and reputation is also a key consideration, particularly because of the ongoing talent crisis, says O’Connor – it’s not just about tempting people back, but also attracting new people. “There are loads of jobs available and people are moving around, so an employer’s reputation is critical in terms of what people might say about the organisation on websites or to friends.” She also points out that the offboarding experience starts with good leadership: “Managers are so important, because if employees don’t like their manager, they’ll be out of the door, but if they’re amazing and care about their career, it’s likely the leaver will return,” she says.

HR, O’Connor adds, can also put its skills to good use in these scenarios to build the right culture and ethos that will tempt talent back. “[HR] can work with leaders and develop them – that’s where their skills will have the most impact in the workplace – but it’s important to celebrate when people go, making it easy for them to leave feeling good about the organisation and finding ways of staying in touch… They could also recommend the organisation and bring other people in.”

Sleightholme agrees that company culture plays an important role in ensuring former staff still have their previous employer in mind when looking for new opportunities. “Because of the pandemic, people are going to be choosy about the type of employer they want to work for and company culture is going to be important,” he explains. “Businesses that don’t embrace things like a good offboarding process and learn and improve their environment for employees are taking a huge risk. But offboarding should be done well regardless of what’s going on. 

“It should be a given that companies are doing proper exit interviews and understanding some of the data that is coming out of that to change processes, and use that feedback to provide a better employee experience.” 

While Cotton confirms that Glassdoor data reflects the importance of culture, she also points out that keeping in touch with leavers plays into the overall employee experience. “It’s a good thing to do because they know you and your organisation, and they could bring new skills they have gained elsewhere back in.” There are, she adds, “very casual” ways to keep in touch with former employees, such as connecting on LinkedIn – especially because the majority of employees who changed jobs stay within the same sector. “They are potentially great advocates for your company,” she says.

Another way to solidify connections with leavers and reinforce company culture is through alumni groups, says Collings. “We are seeing more alumni associations within organisations, and they don’t have to be elaborate,” he explains. “It’s about creating a place where people can stay connected, through a LinkedIn group, social media or events.” Some organisations, Collings adds, have benefits and discounts dedicated to alumni. 

However, O’Connor warns that HR should keep things simple and avoid turning such groups into “massive processes”. “You don’t want to create alumni groups that are a big bureaucratic muddle,” she says, adding that people professionals must utilise their skills to keep talent connected to the organisation through positive experiences and culture. Indeed, PwC UK has successfully rehired former employees through its alumni network of more than 70,000 members since its inception in 1993 through a mix of connection and a connected company culture. Emma Charlesworth, head of the PwC UK alumni network, notes that the world of work is shifting and there is now more acknowledgement that workers no longer join a firm for life. “We are at a really strong point with our network, and have seen a marked increase in people wanting to join it,” she explains. “Whenever we speak to our alumni, there’s a strong sense of pride in being associated with PwC, and that’s one of the reasons they want to engage with us and stay connected.” 

The network is promoted to a leaver at the point of their resignation, and is an integral part of the company’s offboarding process, Charlesworth explains. It offers a quarterly newsletter, LinkedIn page and community platform to keep alumni abreast of the latest news and job opportunities, as well as an annual live event. “A number of alumni are our advocates in the market, and I can think of one person who has left PwC and returned at least four times, each time from a different part of the sector. 

“We also have people who stay connected to the alumni network and then return when they have new skills or see new opportunities at the company. For the people who left 10 years ago, we are a completely different firm now, and there are so many different opportunities – that’s part of the appeal to stay involved with the network and find out what’s happening in the firm.”

According to Collings, who recently published research in the Academy of Management Journal on boomerang hires outperforming new hires, there are upsides to people going to work in another organisation and returning at a later date. “They are likely to be doing different work but in the same context,” he explains. When they come back they will have additional skills, so there’s a significant benefit. Research suggests people perform better when they come back to a former employer, and compared to an external hire they are likely to perform to a higher level and get promoted quicker. 

“This is because they have an established network in the organisation, know their way around and how to get things done because they have those relationships. This is all in addition to the augmented skills they bring from their time away.” 

The effectiveness of businesses’ offboarding processes also hinges on whether they have the necessary skills to conduct a thorough exit interview. Research from BrightHR suggests that less than a third of HR directors consistently conduct exit interviews, despite the majority (95 per cent) saying they find them beneficial. Alan Price, chief executive of BrightHR, notes that a positive offboarding process makes it easier to stay connected “and leaves the door open for re-employment”, adding that given the current recruitment difficulties, employers would be “wise to look at ways to retain staff, and exit interviews have a big part to play in this”.

Sleightholme reports that many of his clients avoid the exercise because they worry it might be a “moan fest” where outgoing employees vent their spleens, which he maintains is often not the case. “You should be using the same skills as you would use in a job interview to probe and extract information,” he explains. “This requires a certain skill and I have worked with clients to help them develop this and alleviate their nerves that employees will just whinge. But some of the information will be useful and constructive regardless.” 

A good offboarding process is undoubtedly beneficial in both attracting, retaining and reattracting old employees. However, Cotton questions whether hiring a former employee is potentially opening a can of worms. “You need to question if it wasn’t right when the employee left, and your organisation’s core values weren’t a good fit for them, is it going to be a good fit in a year’s time when they boomerang? Even if they have different, better skills I would question that before rehiring.”

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