Redefining Loyalty: Set them Free and give them Permission to Return

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What would you do if you didn’t need to earn a living?

Our parents’ generation never asked that question; they didn’t have the luxury to dream.

Our generation didn’t know the answer because it never occurred to us that we could dream.

But our children demand to dream. They not only ask themselves what they want to do but also explore the answers and the ways to get there. They dream of the freedom to do only what they want. This includes choosing where, when, with whom, and on what they work, in ways that align with how they want to live their lives.

As managers and HR leaders, this is the starting point for any conversation on engagement. Gallup’s 2023 State of the Global Workplace report reveals that U.S. engagement has hit an 11-year low, with only 31% of employees highly involved and enthusiastic about their work. This means a large majority of your people show up to work, but they’re not giving it their all. And frankly, they haven’t been for a while. Gallup’s data on engagement has fluctuated between 25 and 35 percent for over 20 years. So isn’t it time to admit that what we’ve been doing isn’t working? Isn’t it time to accept that people no longer want to work for “more”—more money, more power, more status, more authority?

The old paradigms of compensation, benefits, annual reviews, development plans, and retention strategies are outdated. Your employees don’t want to climb up your corporate ladders. They’ve replaced them with a climbing wall that takes them places you don’t even know about. Some will still navigate the system to acquire something for their own path to wherever they’re going (and not telling you). They’re not really dreaming about that promotion and raise; they’ll take it as long as it takes them one step further on their own path.

Understanding this shift is crucial for engaging and retaining today’s workforce. Not for the next decade, but for the next period. You no longer need to retain employees at all costs. The assumption that turnover is inherently bad is outdated. It’s unreasonable to expect that your employees’ unique dreams and desires will always align with your company’s immediate needs. A focus on retention views this misalignment as a problem. But if you shift your perspective and see it as an opportunity to support your people in their personal and professional growth, a new solution emerges: building a relationship that lasts beyond immediate employment and recognizes the need for mutual growth. This approach embraces the idea of knowing how to let go, keeping in touch, and then inviting them back when the time is right.

On and Off Ramps in the Employee Journey

From the employee’s perspective, their work life cycle didn’t begin the day they joined the organization and will not end the day they leave. That used to be the employee’s “problem,” and the organization didn’t look or care what happened the day employment ended. That has to change, understanding that people manage uniquely personalized careers, building skills and capabilities beyond the organization. This is why organizations today would benefit from creating both on and off ramps to facilitate employees’ transitions in and out of the organization. Your employees will leave, as they must, to keep growing their capabilities and expanding their horizons. You need to focus on building a relationship with them as they leave (off ramp) and keep the door open for former employees to return when their personal and professional goals realign with the company’s needs (on ramp).

The first step is to change the way we look at an employee’s choice to leave and implement an off ramp process that includes trust and flexibility. Organizations must trust their employees to make decisions that are best for their personal and professional development, even if that means stepping away from the company for a time, knowing they can return without any stigma attached to their absence.

Which brings us to the second step: maintaining a relationship with alumni, providing them with value, and leaving the door open to return. These networks are increasingly common across various industries, recognizing the value of the experience and institutional knowledge that alumni bring. Accenture, for example, considers its alumni as members of the family, assuring them that “moving out doesn’t mean missing out.” Through the Alumni Network, former employees are encouraged to grow their careers, explore a return to Accenture, or stay connected through events, shared knowledge, the latest insights, and networking opportunities.

The third and final step in this process comes in the form of on ramps, re-entry programs designed not only to welcome back employees who have taken time off but also to strategically rehire former employees whose skills, experience, and company knowledge make them valuable assets. These programs provide training and mentorship to ensure a smooth reentry, reinforcing the company’s commitment to its employees’ long-term success. Accenture’s ReSUME Returners Program is a six-month, competitively paid work placement designed for professionals who have taken a career break of two years or more to help them transition back into the workforce successfully. Bank of America’s “Coming back” program also aims to rehire former employees who left for various reasons.

Rethinking Boomerang Employees

On ramps don’t resemble regular hiring processes. They recognize the value of former employees not only for their familiarity with the company culture and processes but also for the experience they’ve accumulated during their time away. Unlike some returnship programs that focus on helping people who have been away from the workforce integrate back, on ramps should do the same for employees who left to work elsewhere or for themselves and now want to return. Not because they’ve failed, discovered leaving was a mistake, or should have known better, but because they’ve achieved career objectives that didn’t align with the organization and now find that their next step may align. Rehiring boomerang employees—those who leave and eventually return—is becoming a strategic advantage. These employees bring fresh perspectives, enhanced skills, and a renewed sense of loyalty.

Embracing on and off ramps can lead to significant long-term benefits for both the company and its employees. Employees gain the freedom to pursue their aspirations and bring back valuable skills and experiences, while the company retains a network of loyal, experienced professionals who can contribute in diverse ways. In essence, this approach turns the organization into a lifelong partner in the employees’ career journeys.

As with many of our past sacred cows, the future of work is challenging the idea of retention, the value of tenure, and the fear of turnover. We need to recognize that employee loyalty isn’t confined to continuous tenure within a company. By creating on and off ramps and viewing re-entry as a strategic advantage, organizations can align their needs with their employees’ dreams, fostering a culture of mutual respect and long-term loyalty. This paradigm shift not only enhances employee satisfaction and engagement but also ensures that the company benefits from a rich pool of talent, both within and beyond its immediate workforce.

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Nirit Cohen

Nirit Cohen is an expert in the future of work, bridging the gap between emerging trends and practical solutions, providing valuable insights for careers, management, organizations, and broader societal systems.

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