Alumni, or refugees?

woman running ID-10059483 David Castillo

Anybody who has ever left one company for another—or for nothing—has felt the tug of that question.  Many companies are putting big effort into ensuring that employees who leave remain loyal, in-touch, connected-to-the-brand types who see themselves as proud alumni of an outstanding organization.  Networks, websites, special events, online groups: all to keep everybody feeling the love.

The opposite, of course, is to have someone flee the organization, that very day, with only the clothes on their back, shattered by trauma, disillusioned / angry / lawyered up.  Oh, and with accounts on several public online forums.

This first-person piece by Will Blythe in The New York Times describes a typical method many businesses to foreclose any problems with the latter: the growing use of non-disparagement clauses in separation agreements.  I think we can quickly make three obvious observations about the impressions created by this:

1. A company that wishes you to say only good things about them by making you swear not to say bad things about them is admitting they are on the “Great Places to Work, But” list.

2. A company that believes you’re willing to sell some of your right to free speech for money may not have had the highest view of you in the first place.

3. The company’s balanced scorecard may be broken; or, in Blythe’s words, “If a company isn’t strong enough to be reproached, then it simply isn’t strong enough, period.”

Back home in Indiana, we used to call this shutting the barn doors after the cows had run out.  Maybe it prevents a future bad thing from happening, but it certainly can’t engender a good thing.

Breaking up is hard to do, whether it’s a termination for cause, restructuring, layoff or performance.  In the course of my work, I have written the scripts used for these discussions.  I always said that highest standard to observe was whether some version of the same language used in recruiting and hiring could be used in the separation discussion, not as a moment of gross cynicism but as proof there had been a consistency to the employee experience at every stage, with this particular stage as an unfortunate but at least understandable outcome.

Few businesses meet that standard.  But more could if they chose to.  Truth-telling and consistency long before the end make more alumni out of potential refugees than any legal requirement.

How can you better understand the life-cycle of your employees and improve it with strategic communication?

Image courtesy of David Castillo /

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