When Bryan Brandt told his executive producer at Vancouver, B.C.-based Radical Entertainment that he was planning to leave the video game company in 2009, the reaction he received was unusually positive.
"He recognized that I needed a change in my career," said Mr. Brandt, who was then lead game-play programmer, "and basically offered me a design role. I really appreciated what they'd done," he added, "but decided, in the end, to take up the other offer."
Now Mr. Brandt is back at Radical, an example of the so-called "boomerangs" – business jargon for top-performing ex-employees purposely targeted and brought back into an organization.
Radical's corporate ethos of nurturing, rather than ending, relationships with its alumni underline the benefits it can bring to a company. Recently promoted to senior technical director, Mr. Brandt said that both before and after his departure, "they made it very clear that I was valued."
In the past, just the opposite was more likely to occur. When an employee left a company, it was a sign for both of them to simply move on.
Dave Balter, chief executive officer of the Boston-based social marketing firm BzzAgent and the creator of five start-ups, said he can still remember the old corporate attitude. "I heard that a lot: When someone quits on you why would you ever be friends with them?"
Mr. Balter said he bought into that mentality for a while, pretending to ignore former employees at conferences or networking events. "And then," he added, "down the road, something would happen where I would either be in a position where I needed to work with them, or there was an opportunity that we couldn't do because we'd now set up this relationship where we were no longer peers and could no longer work together. And I thought, 'This doesn't make any sense.'"
These days, however, more companies are realizing that breaking up is hard to do. They are inviting their "exes" to events, hosting job-referral programs and offering career-placement services. They are not only building alumni networks, but are also mining them for everything from new business to rehires.
Maintaining a good relationship with departing employees also creates a sense of loyalty, said Radical's human resources manager, Malasavanh Thavonesouk. "They see that the company is investing in them, and have an image of a company that is extremely supportive," she said.
"We see our alumni as an extension of the firm," said John Langhorne, Canadian lead partner for alumni relations at Ernst & Young LLP in Toronto. "They are all brand ambassadors, in some respects, of Ernst & Young."
Numbering 18,000 in Canada alone, not only are many of their alumni now their clients, but also a source of new business and rehires. "Last year, over 25 per cent of our manager-and-above hires previously worked here," Mr. Langhorne said. In fact, a recent U.S. study found that filling a role with an ex-employee can cut recruitment costs by half.
Boomerangs provide other advantages to a company.
"Being able to come back into an organization that you know … is huge," Mr. Langhorne said. "Another one is that these people have worked in a different organization, so they bring in different perspectives, different frames of reference, different knowledge and different experiences that will help them in their role here."
Alumni who feel connected to their previous firm are also more likely to recommend their products or services to their new employers.
"People who work together in one company form a permanent bond," Mr. Balter pointed out, "like the people you went to college or summer camp with. And those ties are forever valuable at finding your next job or getting information or sharing ideas or creating connections. So by helping that you're creating value for yourself – and for them."
For Ms. Thavonesouk, courting and bringing back former employees gives a company an enviable image, that of being "an employer of choice. (Re-hires) have a sense of loyalty to that leader who reached out to them," she said. "And they're flattered. Who wouldn't want someone to seek out his or her expertise?"
While company owners can set up alumni networks more easily than ever nowadays with social networking sites such as LinkedIn, "any sort of program needs to stay current," Mr. Langhorne said. "You have to be nimble and responsive to the way people network."
Mr. Balter recommends sending signals to former employees early. "You send a really nice e-mail or note some time after they've gone, and just say how much you appreciate the time you spent together. If you see them at an event, you shake hands and treat them like a peer. None of those takes a lot of work."
At Radical, Ms. Thavonesouk cautioned against being reactive when an employee decides to leave. More importantly, she said, managers should be consistent in their one-on-ones with staff "to gauge where their heads are. Make that part of a regular monthly conversation, and really work on that open relationship."
In the end, she said, "sometimes an employee outgrows the company, and that's okay.
"If you encourage and support them, they're going to come back and bring that knowledge to you. It's only going to benefit you."