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start: tony wilson

Two quite different events over the past week have led me to believe in the importance of a hidden resource that can add to the value of your brand, create goodwill ambassadors for your company, assist the promotion of the charities your business supports, and, of course, be potential customers or referral sources for you.

I'm speaking of your "alumni" of former employees, partners and managers.

Let me explain by giving you two examples. One story involves a Vancouver law firm. Another involves The Keg.

I was recently searching for a colleague, and found his law firm's website. The firm is called Alexander Holburn.

Other than the faces of the lawyers and some of the graphics, in many ways, one law firm's website can look a lot like any other law firm's website. The landing page directs you to "people", "core values", "firm history", "practice areas", "legal information" (which might assist an existing or potential client) and "recruitment" (which might assist a potential lawyer, articled student or staff member in deciding to work there).

It's the usual stuff.

But wait a minute. There's one page that caught my eye. "Alumni". "Click here to read about our alumni and what they are up to these days." " Click here for news on upcoming Alumni events or to see photos of past events." And "Click here for our alumni newsletter."

Admittedly, there's not a lot of content under each tab yet, but the idea is still a good one. Employees rarely spend their entire careers with the same employer. Get used to it. It's a fact of life.

But the people who used to work for you and have moved on to other pastures may still value the time they spent working with your organization. They may value the colleagues they met there. They may well appreciate the training and support they received from you. They may appreciate the friends they made. And in the legal, accounting and other business sectors, your alumni could well be a great source of referral business for you. They could even be your future clients.

It goes without saying that if an employee's departure from a company is a painful one (perhaps because they've stolen the customer list), the newly departed won't be going to the alumni reunion, won't care about web pages filled with alumni activities, and you won't want them connected with you any more.

Where possible, terminations should be handled respectfully, honourably and delicately, and by both sides. If it's simply not working out, giving the employee "some time to find another job" while they're still working for you without formally announcing their departure to their colleagues, may well give the soon-to-be terminated employee a sense that he or she is being treated fairly and respectfully.

In the absence of bad faith by the employee, cutting off computer access, changing the locks and ushering the employee out of the office with a building security guard and a box filled with their family photos is not the way you want to end a relationship with a potential referral source, or potential client.

But admittedly, it depends on the circumstances, the employer and the employee.

Legal, accounting and other professional service firms may well see departing colleagues as competitors and want nothing to do with them once they're gone, other than to see them crash and burn at their new shop. And sometimes, the "newly departed" is totally responsible for that attitude, reaping what he or she has sewn.

But in the absence of a poisonous employee and a painful exit, perhaps the paradigm should shift a little, and former employees or partners should be perceived as potential referral sources instead of potential Voldemorts.

Over the past 26 years of practice I've been at three other large law firms, and have good memories of all the time I spent at each one. When the opportunity of a referral arises, my choice always starts with the lawyers I know from my time working with them.

You know who you know. Then there's everyone else.

So whatever business you're in (and subject to privacy laws), building an alumni page on your website that keeps current or former employees up to date on where everyone is, and what they're doing, as well as holding the occasional reunion or get-together for special occasions, tells the world that this isn't just a great place to work. It's also a great place to have worked, when the time comes to move on, as almost everyone inevitably does a few times in their careers.

Few businesses that I'm aware of have more dedicated alumni than The Keg Steakhouse & Bar. I worked at the Victoria Keg while doing my law degree in the early 1980s and speak from firsthand experience, even though it's been 27 years since I served my last steak there.

The first Keg opened in 1971 in North Vancouver. The Fort Street Keg in Victoria opened in 1972 and is the only original Keg left from those days.

To celebrate 40 years of the Keg's founding (and I suppose 39 years in downtown Victoria), I received a notification last week that they're having a reunion in September for all former employees of the Victoria Keg over the years. They're closing down the entire restaurant that night for the event.

The alumni from The Keg are, in many ways, a "who's who" of successful people in Canada. I know two judges, five lawyers, one doctor, two marketing executives, four realtors, an Air Canada pilot, a dozen business people, a successful civic politician, many school and college teachers, the president of a large international restaurant chain, and at least one news anchorwoman- and that's just from the Keg I worked at during the early eighties. I'm sure it's the same throughout Canada at other Kegs.

If the Keg needs "goodwill ambassadors" to promote its Keg Spirit Foundation (which donates to other organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, Free the Children, and other worthy organizations), it has close to 200,000 former employees to represent it at the get-go.

If it wants to start a special fundraising drive for the Keg Spirit Foundation - say, to raise money for a school in Africa - it can start with those 200,000 or so Keggers like me who used to work there, but who moved on to other things when they left (like the rest of our lives).

I'd expect the Victoria Keg will seize the opportunity and create a master e-mail list of all alumni, so that former employees could be contacted from time to time to support the Keg Spirit Foundation (and to alert them about other activities or restaurant promotions).

I'd also expect those of us who will be at the reunion will be more than happy to donate gobs of money to the foundation just for being there, even though, like me, our serving days are long over.

Why not try to instill that kind of spirit in your current employees for the time they move on, and in your own alumni? If colleges and universities can do it with their alumni to raise money for scholarships and bursaries, there's no reason why businesses can't do it with their alumni as well.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Tony Wilson is a franchise and intellectual property lawyer at Boughton in Vancouver, and he is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University. His newest book, Manage Your Online Reputation, was published in November.

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