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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, January 2, 2006

Employers keeping in touch with alumni

By Barbara Rose
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO More companies are taking the high road when employees turn in their badges.

Instead of dismissing departing talent as disloyal, firms are reaching out with a variety of programs and services some geared to helping former employees succeed in their careers elsewhere.

There's recognition these "alumni" play important roles in their former employers' success. Some become clients or business referral sources. Others return to work for their old firms.

"This is a networked world where our competitors are our customers, where alumni are our business partners," said Procter & Gamble Co. spokeswoman Charlotte Otto, the company's liaison to a large and growing alumni organization. "We all are connected in one way or another. There's no more cutting the cord."

Law firms are among the latest adopters. Their practice of forcing out lawyers who don't make partner scatters their former members far and wide.

"The more successful our alumni are, the more it builds our brand," said Stephen Patton, a senior litigation partner at Chicago-based Kirkland & Ellis LLP, which launched an alumni network Nov. 1.

"Our alums are friends and cohorts, but they're also our current or future clients. It just makes sense to strengthen our relationship with them."

There are scores of alumni groups, from ad hoc online networks to growing service organizations like the Microsoft Alumni Network, which hired a paid director. Companies that see value in organizing in-house efforts no longer make do with simple directories and office reunions.

They're offering Web sites, newsletters, networking events, training seminars and career placement services. Alumni share job leads and post openings.

"Companies have woken up to the fact that, from the time you decide to make an offer, these are lifelong relationships," said Anne Berkowitch, chief executive of SelectMinds, a 6-year-old business that is mining this growing niche by helping companies develop and manage alumni networks.

Programs catering to former employees got their start decades ago in the consulting industry, where McKinsey & Co., with more than 15,000 alumni, was a pioneer in recognizing the value of staying connected to its far-flung former consultants.

The effort makes sense in the professional services industry because consultants typically leave to work in industry, where they become clients, or for government agencies, where they influence policy.

Big accounting firms also have expanded and formalized their programs.

"Our alumni are really the face of the firm in the community, and there are business development opportunities," said Deloitte & Touche LLP's director of alumni relations, Karen Palvisak, who oversees seven regional directors. "For them, it's a good forum. Just as a college treats its alumni, you want the two to stay connected."

Some firms make a point of keeping the door open to alumni. About 25 percent of Ernst & Young LLP's hires at the manager level or above are returning employees or "boomerangs," said Helen Walsh, the firm's director of recruiting and lifelong relationships.

Ernst & Young audit manager Laura Segert, 29, rejoined the accountancy recently after an 18-month stint working for a corporation. A reunion for current and former employees in September cinched her decision to return.

"I realized the people were really what I missed, and having the network helped me feel like I could come back," she said.