Recognise This! – Is the best way to engage employees to focus on them when they leave?

I’ll admit, I started to read this Fast Company article prejudiced to disagree with the premise – “the best opportunity to engage employees is how you treat them when they leave.”

Ridiculous, right? They’re leaving! How does working to engage them now do any good? It’s like using your exit interview as your best survey tool for employee engagement in your organisation. (Yes, that’s really a thing.)

But, after reading the article, I admit my prejudicial instincts may have been wrong.

Author Jessica Amortegui’s point is employees are likely going to leave anyway. Statistically, there are very few “lifer” employees that stay at one (or even two or three) companies for the entirety of their careers. She cites a Deloitte survey showing 85% of the workforce is actively looking for a new job or open to talking to recruiters. So, when they do succumb to the “grass is always greener” syndrome, do everything you can to leave a good impression so they’ll want to return.

Citing two of my favorite researchers on employee motivation, recognition and engagement (Dan Ariely and Theresa Amabile), Amortegui recommends celebrating employees’ accomplishments, even as they walk out the door:

“If you want an employee to walk out of the door engaged, what better way than to celebrate the progress they made in their tenure? It’s never too late–nor can you ever do too much–to make somebody feel like their work matters.”

Point taken. My one concern is people using this advice as an excuse to wait until an employee is ready to leave to recognise their contributions. Far better to praise, celebrate and appreciate employees for their efforts, contributions, and results throughout their tenure with your organisation because this is what engages them in their work in the first place. Failure to do so results in just as many employees actively looking for a job open to talking to a recruiter, but far more of that 85% mentioned earlier will fall into the “I quit but forgot to tell you” category.

In today’s volatile job market, sometimes the best we can do is to fully engage the employees we have for as long as we have them. If we can do a better job of that – even incrementally – we can boost the bottom line quite dramatically. (See this recent Aon Hewitt global research showing every 1 percentage point increase in engagement drives a 0.6% increase in sales growth.)

How much effort does your organisation put into “alumni” employees? Would your past star performers want to return? What are you doing to make that more likely?