You can take the employee out of the firm, but can you ever take the firm out of the employee? Professional services company Ernst & Young (EY) thinks not.
With almost 400,000 former employees worldwide moved onto new pastures, EY recognised that it had an influential audience who did not have to be forgotten just because they were no longer on the payroll.
The company partnered with enterprise social network LinkedIn to connect with previous employees and invite them to join its global EY alumni network. By activating this untapped network, EY will strengthen business relationships, which will in turn prove to be a valuable asset for the company’s growth in the long-term.
Elena Hickey Saroli, global alumni leader at EY, explains: ‘We have just under 400,000 alumni worldwide. It can have a seismic effect on what a brand can be. We have everyone from school leavers to entry board members. A lot of our alumni go on to work with former clients. They benefit from having that strong relationship.’
To re-establish its relationship with former employees, EY used LinkedIn Sponsored Updates and Sponsored InMail to send personalised messages to reconnect before following up with a direct invite to register to the network. Within the first six days, the company received more than 800 registrations whilst more than two-thirds clicked through the link EY provided.
‘The engagement levels of these groups are off the chart,’ says Hickey Saroli. ‘It was a question of the right tool at the right time with the right audience. We didn’t have a target but we were surprised and extremely happy with the level of engagement. It’s hard to value a corporate alumni programme. I prefer to talk about return on engagement rather than investment.’
Many EY alumni already use LinkedIn to connect with their colleagues through EY-related discussion groups, and research by LinkedIn found that 70 per cent of current employees had at least one former employee among their LinkedIn connections. Group Federation Targeting helped EY reach well-connected former employees who were likely to respond, and could also influence other alumni to do so.
Hickey Saroli believes that the creator of the next Google exists within EY’s vast alumni. By asking them the right questions and engaging them through thoughtful and meaningful posts, they can build a working relationship based on trust. And trust is just the currency EY is looking to generate through their networking.
‘Business will surge if people on either end trust each other,’ says Hickey Saroli. ‘It’s a soft sell of a hard fact. People trust people to do business, not organisations. If you get the relationships right, the rest will follow.’
But just how do you activate an audience that has already potentially moved on? For EY, it is about making sure the internal culture is right in the first place. ‘If the culture is strong, the relationship with your alumni is really strong,’ says Hickey Saroli. ‘We believe you’re an alumnus from the moment you join the company, not the moment you leave.’
And with the absence of water-cooler conversations and more employees hot-desking or working from home, Hickey Saroli hopes that the network will provide a service that the traditional workplace can no longer create in the way that it used to.
‘A workplace can be disparate,’ admits Hickey Saroli. ‘How do you continue to have that working relationship? We should be giving them a great post-EY experience too.’
Hickey Saroli notes that employees, especially millennials (who make up a lot of EY’s target audience, as they are more likely to leave to go on to other roles), are more satisfied when they are included in part of a bigger picture. Growing the alumni network is about asking them the right questions.
She explains: ‘We don’t want to be a nuisance. We test stories and approaches. You can’t underestimate the extent to what our alumni are interested in the big picture. People are focused on day-to-day work, they don’t necessarily have those emotional conversations. There is an appetite for that bigger question. They don’t just want to do a good job; they want to do a good job doing good.’
For EY, this means talking about initiatives such as Women FastForward, its campaign to close the gender pay gap and to accelerate the position of women in the workplace. It has created a series of programmes to empower women entrepreneurs to think bigger, gain access to capital, learn from their peers and find seasoned advisors, on both a global and regional scale.
It has also published the experiences of some of its former women employees, profiling those who had gone on to be successful entrepreneurs or board members. ‘These things make a difference to entrepreneurs, to families, to women,’ says Hickey Saroli. ‘Our motto has always been Building a better working world. We should have a bigger ambition than just serving our clients.
‘It’s a frosty idea on paper, Building a better working world is a catchphrase but these stories resonate. We’re looking for a reason to reconnect and also to offer something of interest. Not every organisation allows you to interact with that. Ask better questions. The outcome is the same, we still do our jobs, but the satisfaction level is what makes the culture extraordinary.’
It is not just about being on LinkedIn, however. ‘We’ve got to ask better questions in multiple places,’ says Hickey Saroli. ‘I don’t believe in either/ or. We’ve got to be where people are, engaging and connecting people who trawl websites as well as the people who are more comfortable on social media.’
Hickey Saroli recognises that reconnecting with ex-employees can occur at a local level, as well as a global one, and after seeing the network grow through LinkedIn, the alumni teams across the world are more motivated than ever. The EY Alumni UK Twitter page alone has more than 550 followers.
‘The team needed to see our success. People realise then that they are pushing at an open door,’ she says. ‘Our expectations were exceeded. We knew we had a loyal population. Through ongoing conversations we earned a lot of connectivity. We have a bigger understanding of what floats their boats. It’s a recognition that people who have left the firm are completely engaged and open. Their appetite is extremely heartening.’
Reconnecting is mutually beneficial for both the company and its alumnus. Global chairman and chief executive Mark Weinberger has felt the benefit firsthand, after leaving the company three times only to rejoin for a fourth in 2013.
‘No matter where I went, EY kept drawing me back. I’m glad I didn’t burn that bridge,’ he said.