In business, you can go home again,
but keep the door wide open.
There are no statistics that track the success rate of high
school sweethearts separated for 30, 40 or even 50 years who
reunite in adulthood. But we know this happens time and again.
Take the real-life case of Diane and Rodney. High school
sweethearts in 1959, they were separated by disapproving
parents. But in 2007 they reunited, rekindled the romance and
ultimately married. When you think about it, this phenomenon is
not exactly surprising. Common backgrounds and values, knowing
each other’s history, shared friends and experiences,
combined with subsequent maturity and a more learned
appreciation of relationships, keep the door open and make for
a powerful reconnection.
Reuniting also happens in the workplace, many times with
terrific results. We know that good employees, for a variety of
reasons, leave their jobs, not necessarily because they are
unhappy but for reasons ranging from an impossible commute to
lack of promotional opportunities. Good employees that leave
without slamming the door behind them, i.e. they give
appropriate notice, help with transition and don’t
badmouth the firm, stand the best chance of being welcomed
back—even if returning is not on their radar when they
They move on and find new jobs, gain new experiences,
develop a broader perspective and mature both interpersonally
and emotionally. At some point, especially if they’ve
kept in touch, they may aspire to return.
This situation can result in a monumental win-win. The firm
gets back a proven strong contributor, one who knows the
landscape, likes the landscape and is motivated to return. The
employee is in the enviable position of knowing most of the
positives and negatives about the firm and is able to make a
very well informed decision.
Given the potential upside, it’s discouraging to see
some firms treat departing employees like a cheating partner
and ending the employment relationship in a nasty breakup. Take
a lesson from Diane and Rodney. Keep the door open for
returning employees, particularly those who have the potential
to be your next stars. Your chances increase that you’ll
reap the many benefits of a happy reunion.
Set the stage. Just as no one
wants to return to a relationship marked by long-term
dissatisfaction and dysfunction even if some chemistry remains,
no employee wants to return to a job where they felt
unimportant or unappreciated, even if the company is successful
and “sexy.” Set the stage for returning employees
at the individual level. Ensure that valued employees know they
are valued. Treat them with respect, throughout their tenure
and particularly once they resign, and make sure they
understand the importance of their role and contribution.
Ask them to stay. Years ago I
resigned from a job and, after an uncomfortable resignation
speech, my boss said, “No. I don’t want you to
resign. Tell me what you need to stay.” With that one
statement, I realized that resigning was not akin to breaking
up, that there was room for discussion and flexibility. While
many managers would have accepted my resignation and
fast-tracked me out of there, this executive looked beyond the
immediate situation. Before my words were out, he had evaluated
my contribution, engaged me in discussion, and moved toward
future possibilities. I didn’t resign that day after all,
but a year later, due to pressing personal reasons, I stepped
down from my position with support from the organization. When
years later I was again ready for a full-time job, there was no
doubt where I wanted to work. And for whom. Because the door
was left open, I stepped back through it, and I’m still
there (here) today. Simply put, if you’d like an employee
to stay and/or return, make it very clear.
Stay in touch. Short of
creating an alumni association, which is not a bad idea, there
are many ways to stay in touch with valued ex-employees.
Facebook, LinkedIn and even old-fashioned email are easy ways
to send messages. It doesn’t really matter what words you
use. The simple act of consistently reaching out says
“thinking of you,” “want to stay in
touch,” and, subtly (or not), “let me know if
things don’t work out and you’d like to come
Alternatively, many firms stay in touch by hiring the
ex-employee as a part-time consultant, calling them with
business questions and inviting them to social and professional
events. Staying in touch is a key component to eventually
getting back together.
Re-recruit. Bringing back star
performers, especially when a position opens up at your firm
that you think they’d be perfect for, may require some
wooing. Stay on equal footing with the person you’re
looking to entice and don’t be shy. Make a date, for
example. Invite the person to lunch, a logical step since
you’ve stayed in touch. Tell them about the opening in a
conversational, “let’s see what we can come up
with” kind of way. Ask about and then carefully listen to
their personal goals and professional interests. Match them to
the job you have in mind. Ask about new skill sets and
experiences. Integrate these into a discussion of the new
position. Success is not guaranteed, but you’ll greatly
increase your odds of creating a spark of interest.
The value of a positive relationship should be respected and
preserved, even when the existing affiliation ends. Make sure
it’s a happy ending and then stay in touch so that, when
the time is right, you’ve kept both the door and the
possibility open for a mutually beneficial reunion.
Kramer is The Council’s senior vice president, Office
of the President.