You're Firedbut Stay in Touch

More companies are creating Web sites where ex-employees can share leads and remain within reach

As the global recession has deepened, human resources managers have adopted a term for the thousands of employees they're ushering out the door: "alumni." From Dow Chemical (DOW) to JPMorgan Chase (JPM), companies are urging former employees to maintain ties as members of the broader corporate team, almost like grads of the same alma mater, even if they end up moving to competing companies.

The idea is to keep in touch with pros who might end up as business partners or even return as employees. For this, companies are steering them to alumni social networks. Much like Facebook or LinkedIn, they offer former employees and retirees a place to establish profiles and friend lists, share news and ideas with ex-colleagues, and participate on blogs and message boards. Unlike the big public social networks, the company sites feature industry news and job leads. They guide alums to reunions and company events—some even offer deals on health insurance.

Alumni networks follow a tenet of the knowledge economy: Personal connections transcend corporate boundaries. Already, office workers routinely Twitter and share Facebook status updates with long lists of "friends" that often include business rivals and former colleagues. With their alumni networks, corporations attempt to dissolve those boundaries themselves, establishing for each company a broad network of people who can keep in touch throughout their careers to benefit from each other's knowledge and contacts. Some companies mix alumni with current employees; others keep them apart. "We're interested in building lifelong relationships," says Caren Scoropanos, who heads two-year-old KPMG Connect, where some 17,000 alumni mingle online with 22,000 employees.

Software companies such as Seattle's Conenza and New York's SelectMinds build and manage alumni networks. The number of companies participating is rising fast. SelectMinds alone runs more than 60 networks, including those at IBM (IBM), Lockheed Martin (LMT), and KPMG. The company launched the service nine years ago as a recruiting tool, says SelectMinds CEO Anne Berkowitch. "We went to market with the idea that former employees were valuable. It was a time when companies couldn't hire fast enough."

MAINTAINING GOOD GRACES

Today it's a far different story. Companies are sending centuries of experience out the door. And yet, if they keep ex-employees on alumni networks, they retain a link to that knowledge. In the best cases, former employees might have nice things to say about the company—becoming, in HR parlance, "brand ambassadors." And when the economy recovers, companies will be in touch with qualified workers who can be recruited to come back. Such cases are called "boomerangs."

Of course, not everyone who leaves a company is an eager brand ambassador. Some are angry after being laid off or fired. The risk is that alumni networks could give them a forum for venting. Yet the way it works out, say alums and company execs, the disgruntled tend to air grievances on sites beyond company control. "There are enough other forums to blog or grouse," says Gwen Weld, who left Microsoft in 2004 after 20 years at the company. "The alumni network is not one of them."

For managers, alumni networks provide a laboratory for learning. Using online tools, they can map the hot topics, companies, products, and technologies mentioned. As they scout for new talent, they can study the patterns of user behavior. Some contributors, says Berkowitch, turn out to be mavens—experts in a science or technology. Others are effective networkers. They come often to the site, add new friends and connections, and link people to knowledge and opportunities. Host companies can use software to analyze the dynamics of each person's connections. Using such insights, one accounting firm reached into its alumni network last year to rehire 31 boomerangs, according to SelectMinds.

At lively corporate sites, alumni find opportunities far beyond the host company. Microsoft's (MSFT) 10-year-old network, run by Conenza, offers free job ads to companies looking to recruit from the 10,000 Microsoft alums on the site.

Erin Peterson, who heads global talent acquisition at consultant Hewitt Associates (HEW), pushed last year for an alumni network. Her reasoning: Alumni would include numerous top managers and executives at related companies, who could send opportunities in Hewitt's direction. "I was thinking business development," Peterson says.

But reaching the broad constituency—some 37,000 have left Hewitt voluntarily and otherwise since 1977—was a challenge. Her team messaged Hewitt groups on LinkedIn and Facebook, gathered e-mail addresses, and sent out 6,000 old-fashioned postcards. To date, nearly 2,700 alums have signed up. A few find themselves re-employed at Hewitt. That means they're bounced, at least for now, from the alumni-only network.

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