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7 tips for creating an alumni employee network

Even great HR teams have recruiting challenges in today's competitive labor market. Learn how an alumni employee network might help and why it's a magnet for 'boomerang employees.'

The days of employees staying at one job for their entire careers are long gone, which means that companies need to get creative about attracting -- and re-attracting -- talent.

An alumni employee network is one way of getting creative and making a long play for recruiting. It is a virtual gathering spot for former employees and is created by either the company or the former employees. And it can be a valuable resource managers and HR teams can use as a source of referrals and good word of mouth for the company.

Ninety-eight percent of Fortune 500 companies have an employee alumni program of some sort, according to a 2019 study by EnterpriseAlumni. An employee alumni program can lead to higher revenue, more product innovation and even a higher retention rate.

Fostering relationships with former employees can boost companies' reputations, provide a pool of beta testers already familiar with the company and encourage employees to come back -- a trend also known as boomerang employees.

However, a top-tier employee alumni network requires more than simply setting up a LinkedIn group. Here are seven tips for setting an alumni network up for success and keeping alumni employees engaged.

1. Get executives and current employees involved

An employee alumni network requires key champions in the organization so leadership agrees to put resources behind it.

Before seeking executive buy-in to create or improve an employee alumni network, HR leaders and others involved in the effort should identify needed resources, required budget and the employees involved in the project, said Sheryl LaPlace, HR consultant at Insperity, an HR software vendor located in Kingwood, Texas.

Employees who are already heavily involved in their college alumni associations are a good fit for this project because they already have the needed skills from leading their college groups.

Company leaders should avoid overloading the employees who take charge of the alumni network, said Matthew Burr, HR consultant at Burr Consulting LLC, an HR consultancy located in Elmira, N.Y. The organization should free them up to spend a few hours a week on the project.

2. Identify the target demographic

HR leaders should consider that one size may not fit all when creating an employee alumni network. Instead, personalization may be critical for success.

Depending on the organization, creating alumni groups for specific demographics, such as retirees, seasonal employees or freelancers, may make more sense than having one group, LaPlace said. The organization can then potentially sponsor events for each specific group.

For example, a local meetup for freelancers would enable participants to network with professionals at similar stages in their careers, LaPlace said.

3. Take advantage of informal networks

In an effort to stay in touch with their former colleagues, alumni may create their own alumni networks on a platform like Facebook or LinkedIn.

For example, current and former marketing team members might have created a virtual group to keep connected that HR may then be able to expand and formalize, LaPlace said.

That approach may not always work since those established informal networks may not lend themselves to formalization. However, at the least, those current employees and alumni may be willing participants in a new company-sanctioned employee alumni network.

4. Lay the foundation with new and current employees

Asking employees to become part of the network when they're on their way out may be leaving it too late.

"Start the groundwork for someone joining the network when they come in the door," LaPlace said. "Make it part of the orientation."

Letting new employees know early on that they can continue to make connections after they leave helps them when the time arrives for them to move on.

5. Communicate appropriately

Alumni may leave the network if the company sends out communications that members find overwhelming or annoying.

Keeping communication channels open is important, but companies need to strike the right balance, Burr said.

"Emails every week might be too much," he said.

Instead, invite alumni to the group, and then track who accepts and is engaging with the group, as well as analyzing email invite open rates.

Also, make clear how the employee alumni network can benefit participants, LaPlace said. Doing so likely makes them more willing to join and stay active.

6. Carefully consider events

HR leaders should get creative when considering types of events to plan. Setting up events that go beyond networking could help attract former employees.

Holding volunteer activities could prove popular, LaPlace said. Knowledge sharing is also a draw, so holding learning events and inviting alumni to present or attend can strengthen the network.

However, HR leaders should also be wary of potential live event drawbacks. Like college alumni groups, alumni employee get-togethers are often casual meetups at bars or other venues, and questions of liability may arise.

"I hate to be the HR guy, but going to a bar -- from a liability standpoint, you have to watch if alcohol is being served and what's going on at events," Burr said. "What does it look like from the standpoint of HR policies?"

If someone gets injured or a sexual harassment incident occurs, the company could be on the hook for a worker's compensation payment or lawsuit.

Virtual events are one answer. They can help foster connections and avoid those problems, and they can be particularly helpful if former employees are scattered geographically.

7. Solicit feedback

Asking alumni what they want to see from the network can potentially help improve the group.

While technology, from LinkedIn Groups to specialized platforms, can help HR departments run employee alumni networks, nothing beats the human element, LaPlace said. Gathering ideas from employees and stakeholders on potential future events and getting feedback on what's working and what's not are two ways to potentially help improve participation.

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