Throwing my bags onto the airport security conveyor belt at New York City’s JFK Airport Terminal 4, I noticed that the woman in front of me was wearing a hat, jacket, and backpack all with the same company logo. I started talking with her as we waited our turn through the metal detector. I asked her about the company, and she excitedly told me about it and different roles she played there. That is powerful brand marketing—and it was free. Here is the funny part—she no longer even worked at that company.
So much emphasis goes into employer branding and hiring. Employer branding is the reputation a company creates and reinforces through its marketing. It’s the image that compels people to apply for a job or take that recruiting call. There are entire marketing functions devoted to this, but when it comes to offboarding, it’s often difficult to find an HR employee who is available for that exit interview. While onboarding focuses on ensuring a deep connection to the company purpose, strategy, and cultural behaviors, a good offboarding experience ensures the same as the employee exits. How an employee exits matters—to the employee, to the company, and ultimately, to the people with whom that now “former employee” interacts.
We read the social media posts when people share their excitement about joining a company. We less frequently read the posts when they leave.
In most cases, I have seen employees be initially excited and proud to work for a company. On their first day, they eagerly dig into the ubiquitous tote bags, excited to use all their branded goods. They wear the T-shirt, fill up their water bottles, and use their notebooks and pens to capture notes, analog-style. These artifacts represent employee pride. Yet, that employee experience over time is what will determine whether employees keep wearing that T-shirt, refill that water bottle, and put groceries in that tote bag, long after they work at that company. If they felt respected and valued, as they sent that last email for the last time to their team and had an exit interview with someone who valued their opinion, they will likely be a brand ambassador for the company—maybe even a boomerang who ends up working for the company again.
Cultural opportunity: The “keep in touch rule”
One of the things that Patty McCord reinforced during her tenure at Netflix, which she shared with me in a video interview, was to “Be a great place to be from—and everyone who leaves becomes an ambassador for your product and how you operate.”
Twitter recently set up an alumni group. The group meets once a month. The first time I joined, I got so excited to see old friends and colleagues. Many other companies offer ways for alumni to stay connected. Social media, dedicated websites, and newsletters keep employees in touch with the organization. eBay even hosts dinners for alumni, inviting feedback on the company strategy, understanding that the alumni who worked at other places have a wider lens and can offer robust feedback and perspective.
Research suggests that more employers could benefit from offering structured alumni programs so that employees can keep in touch with one another. According to a 2019 report from PeoplePath and Cornell, a third of corporate alumni maintain connections with previous employers as clients, partners, or vendors—and 15 percent of new hires come from alumni rehires and referrals. LinkedIn hosts more than 100,000 corporate alumni groups, but most have no formal relationship with their company. This is a missed opportunity for companies to stay connected to former employees and to partner with them for potential employee and customer referrals.
The exit is as important as the entrance
The exiting employee’s experience can provide a rich learning opportunity for the company to better understand how to improve the employee experience overall. When exiting employees are treated with the same care as the ones entering, the manager, team, and company gain valuable insight into their processes and practices as well as an excellent opportunity to reinforce the culture of the company.
Exiting employees can be brand ambassadors for the company once they leave—or not. And, regardless of what they did or didn’t do for the company, they deserve to be treated with respect as they leave. Do not waste this opportunity on an automated exit interview checklist that gets sent to the employee via email. Meet with employees and ask them about the manager, the team, and their cultural experience. I always asked my employees what I could have done differently when they decided to leave, regardless of the situation. I always learned from these conversations—even the more challenging ones.
A manager’s role is to ensure that the employee experience matches the cultural values and behaviors right through the end. The new reality is that some attention must now be paid to carrying this into the postemployment experience. We are all connected in the online world. How you treat your employee on that last day speaks volumes about the culture—leave soon-to-be alumni with a positive lasting impression. In every exit interview I have done, I have learned something new to improve the employee experience. Some good questions in each of those categories could include:
Regarding the manager:
- Could your manager have done anything differently to change your decision to leave?
- What impacted you most about your experience with your manager?
- Was any feedback received from your manager helpful?
- Did your manager encourage you to develop skills?
Regarding the culture:
- How would you describe the company culture?
- Were the values and behaviors actively referenced and practiced?
- Were you able to impact the company strategy? What about the purpose?
- What can this company do to create a better employee experience?
- How important is company culture for you?
- How would you describe your overall employee experience?
- What would you change about the culture?
Regarding the team: