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In the midst of widespread layoffs that rode in fast on the heels of the Great Resignation, many companies are still struggling to retain employees and reduce overall organizational turnover. The problem with that mentality is that it makes it impossible to reap the benefits of intentional attrition, like loyal alumni and boomerang employees.
Intentional attrition is a deliberate plan to reduce the number of employees or customers in an organization over time. Schools make great use of this strategy. From the moment eager students apply, they know their tenure will be finite; it’s supposed to be that way. While some students might stay longer than others or even get long-term campus appointments, most leave after a few years. It’s seen in a positive light because it means the school has done its job.
Most companies don’t operate that way. During interviewing and onboarding, the discussion assumes that the employee will stay with the employer indefinitely. Sure, both sides realize that the average tenure of a modern worker is about four years. But in practice, they sweep that fact under the rug. When the employee does leave, the process feels awkward, like a high school breakup. Neither side has acknowledged the moment or prepared for the eventuality.
Fortunately, a few employers have embraced the notion of intentional attrition, often known as an up-and-out system. For example, at companies like McKinsey & Co., attrition isn’t negative. It’s normal. Employees know at the beginning of their time with McKinsey that even if they perform at their highest capacity, they might not progress. With only so many senior positions available, some McKinsey team members will be encouraged to leave.
This up-and-out policy provides a sense of transparency and, ironically, a sense of security. Reportedly, just 1% of McKinsey job applicants receive an offer. For many, this makes them eager to jump into the experience and lay excellent career groundwork that probably means moving upward somewhere else. When they leave, they also become part of a thriving alumni community that continues to guide their career-pathing expectations.
How Alumni Create Powerful Employer Branding
You don’t have to look hard to find articles written by ex-McKinsey employees who are thrilled to praise the firm’s employer brand. These positive alumni reviews matter, especially because any company’s employer brand is directly influenced by current and past employee experience. Consequently, a positive employer brand can mitigate any negative aspects that some people may leave with as well. When former employees praise the employer they left, people take notice.
Some of those people are equally ambitious, hard-working job seekers looking for a place that will bring them purpose and a sense of belonging. So they apply for openings and continue the cycle of up-and-out. In the meantime, alumni stay in touch and refer to their former work lives positively.
This process generates a moving, well-oiled process. People come into a business, give it their best, and either snag promotions or leave on good terms. A few might become boomerang employees, coming back years or decades later to further enhance their ex-employer’s experience and capabilities. The employer brand naturally keeps getting stronger and more productive as a result.
Making Planned Attrition a Normal Process
Like any organizational change, taking the sting away from losing great people takes time and effort. Nevertheless, if you can create an organizational process that doesn’t penalize workers who resign, you can generate more a positive culture that will positively affect your employer brand. Remember the school analogy? What if you thought of your company as a place where rising talent could learn and grow? As a career accelerator, you could set up an up-and-out system. Try these steps to start:
1. Acknowledge that this isn’t forever from the beginning.
If you’re positioned as a career accelerator, you have an obligation as a “stepping stone” to help employees gain opportunities at other companies. The trade-off would be simple: You expect exceptional performance from your employees. In return, they understand that they have to be honest when they’re getting ready to go. No ghosting you or suddenly tendering their resignation. And you create an environment where they feel comfortable being honest.
McKinsey invests heavily in its people through what chief people officer Katy George has described as “grow skills or go.” Thanks to McKinsey’s education-based, up-and-out reputation, coveted employers, including Google and Apple, are willing to give a second look to McKinsey alumni who submit résumés.
Put some heart — and resources — into your training, mentoring, and apprenticeships. This means giving people real, beneficial life skills and tangible lessons they can put to work immediately. It also means providing the necessary tools to unlock value quickly and, most of all, learning experiences that they can fondly remember and value over time. Additionally, strive to keep assets, resources, and knowledge libraries available to people even after they have left. This is another way to build a reputation based on value and support.
You will have fulfilled this objective if your training goes beyond learning the required skills to progress in a current role within your company and instead includes the tools, skills, and capabilities that set them up for future success wherever they are. Remember, peer-to-peer mentoring builds strong relationships and imparts knowledge. As such, your investments in these kinds of programs are actively strengthening the connective tissue between colleagues even after they move on to go someplace else.
2. Focus on promoting internal candidates and boomerang employees.
As a career accelerator with an up-and-out mindset, you must continuously move people up or across the corporate landscape. After all, some of your performers will want to invest more than two, three, or four years at your workplace. However, they won’t stick around if you can’t offer them mobility.
To build a foundation for greatness, you must validate that you’re serious about recognizing solidly impressive work. This means promoting from within whenever possible or, in some cases, rehiring former employees who have upped their skills, credentials, and networks — or who maybe even regret their decision to leave.
The more predictably dynamic the talent flow through your company is, the more new hires will realize that your employer brand as a springboard for long-term career success and support is earned.
In most organizations, ambitious managers have a tendency to want to keep — and inadvertently hold back — great talent. However, this is a setback to progress and should be discouraged. To effectively stop this bad practice, you can publicly recognize the value of a manager by how many people they have developed and progressed throughout a year. This, then, aligns with everyone’s objectives more easily.
At a tactical level, the internal job board needs to be clear and accessible. Internal applications need to be prioritized, and any awkwardness around applying to leave a team in favor of others needs to be neutralized on a cultural level by celebrating and encouraging these moves as positive social norms. If internal mobility is encouraged and discussed regularly during appraisals or frequent reviews, you will naturally see more internal movement, mitigating regrettable loss to outside competition in a more predictable way.
Ultimately, tracking internal mobility uplift against regrettable loss can help you easily measure the value of this new, more predictable internal talent flow.
3. Engage your alumni.
Many people have left jobs only to be replaced and forgotten by their former bosses. At McKinsey, however, the firm is quick to publish articles on unicorns launched by its alumni and even offers alumni special recognition in the company through the McKinsey Alumni Center. Similarly, celebrate those who have put in great work at your company.
To begin evolving your alumni community authentically, a simple “gated community” of any kind — a newsletter or Slack workspace, for instance — is a good place to start. Put together a program that facilitates staying in touch, sharing news and events, privileged access to assets and resources, and even alumni swag. All of these offerings will help keep people engaged over time.
Additionally, how you offboard people is key for consistently seeing engaged alumni numbers increase over time. Make a positive farewell, celebrate their future successes and opportunities, and be grateful for their specific contributions. Keeping in touch and celebrating personal wins — and maybe even reaching out to feature or profile alumni as they move through their careers — encourages people to fondly remember their time at your company.
Sometimes, alumni communities pop up organically, run by others who want to stay in touch with colleagues. These can be great places to reach out and offer support and benefits. Doing so can be an effective way to quickly expand numbers and increase positive sentiment and brand awareness.
Over time, your alumni community will begin to evolve authentically. Although you should have some hand in it, be aware that the community needs to serve your alumni more than your company. Your alumni community is the only group of people associated with your organization that’s guaranteed to keep growing. These are influential players in how the outside world perceives your employer brand.
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Can it be challenging to take this novel approach to what the employee experience means at your business? Absolutely. It takes faith and the ability to hire strategically from the get-go. But once it’s in place, you’ll start to see a transformation in everything from engagement to culture. All because you weren’t afraid to say goodbye at hello.