Don’t Neglect Offboarding When Employees and Volunteers Move On

An association's relationship with its people is often finished with an exit interview or end of a volunteer's term. But there are good reasons to keep those connections.

A lot of the people who are important to your organization are going to leave you.

Forgive the bit of melodrama, but it’s a fact that tends to get neglected. Associations put a lot of focus on recruitment and retention—of members, staff, and volunteers—but not so much on their relationship with those people after they leave their posts. If I search the AssociationsNow.com site on the word “onboarding,” there’s an abundance of articles on its importance and how to address it. “Offboarding,” less so.

And that lack of attention to the end of tenures has consequences. The people who are no longer with your organization can be powerful ambassadors for your association—or its most influential critics. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Turn Departing Employees Into Loyal Alumni,” management professors Alison M. Dachner and Erin E. Makarius explore the value of successful offboarding, and show how a number of companies successfully manage it.

The reason leaders tend not to address offboarding, they argue, is that it forces them to admit that employees most likely aren’t going to spend their entire career in one place—or even a sizable stretch of it. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average job tenure in the United States is about four years. Moreover, an offboarding program can seem like an unnecessary luxury. Why invest scarce resources in people who have no direct role in your organization?

When people leave, they are going to talk.

Dachner and Makarius argue that, rather than draining resources, building positive relationships with former employees is a long-term investment in your organization’s success. According to one report they cite, a third of corporate alumni keep a relationship with their old employer, perhaps as a client or vendor, and 15 percent of new hires come from rehires or referrals from ex-employees.

And because employees have strong memories of how they left an organization, it’s a good idea to make sure that departure goes smoothly. As Mike Quinn, a chemical industry executive, told Dachner and Makarius: “When people leave, they are going to talk about the company and the way they were treated on the way out. You want them and your current employees to realize that people are treated well even when they leave.”

To that end, the authors recommend that employers think about professional development in ways that are meaningful for the organization, but also provide skills for the employee for when they make their (almost certain) departure. But the effort needn’t be spendy—sometimes a decent send-off that recognizes an employee’s contributions can build enough goodwill to ensure the former employee maintains a positive relationship.

“One of the things I think is a misconception is that this has to be financially costly,” Dachner said in an HBR podcast on the article. “A lot of it surrounds praise and recognizing that people have been there, sending emails and newsletters, fostering relationships.”

The article focuses on the corporate realm, but it’s not hard to extend its insights into the association arena. Most association volunteer roles, from ad hoc committees to the board, are term-limited. And how many associations have endured a former member or employee bad-mouthing the organization because they weren’t feeling supported or acknowledged after their tenure was over? In that light, alumni programs for key volunteers can be meaningful; so can efforts to better engage with past board presidents.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to this, but it won’t hurt to ask how people who are rolling off might feel valued. In 2015 I reported (in one of those rare “offboarding” articles) on how a pair of medical association executives engaged with past presidents, copying them on emails about board work and setting up conference calls to hear their interests. It was a low-cost effort, and the fear that past presidents would be meddlesome didn’t bear out. More importantly, it established a new social norm at the association—that people who’ve made a contribution in the past ought to be honored for it.

What does your association do to maintain ties with former employees and volunteers? Share your experiences in the comments.

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Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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