Former Colleagues Are More Valuable than You Think

The New Year is a time when a lot of people decide to start making changes, including changes about where they work. While letters of resignation aren’t typically dated January 1, for many people the departure plan begins with the turn of the year. But if you’re making plans for a job change in 2016, make sure you’ve got a plan in place to keep your relationships at your old employer intact even after you’ve started somewhere else.

If you do, you might even be doing your old employer a favor by leaving. Researchers from the University of Maryland and the Wharton School have found that when an employee switches from one firm to another, both firms may actually benefit.

Rafael Corredoira and Lori Rosenkopf studied the patents filed by semiconductor companies for almost 15 years, from 1980 to 1994. In doing so, they built a database of 154 firms and 42,000 patents. For every patent application filed, the applicant also cites existing patents that the new idea borrows from or builds upon. That allowed the researchers to study linkages formed between companies when talent departed. If employees move from one firm to another, the researchers would be able to see the effect of employees’ ideas on the new firm because those employees would be likely to cite patents from their old firm in their new patent applications.

Left alone, departing employees benefiting from the ideas in their old company and taking those ideas to the new company would be a bad thing. But surprisingly, the researchers found that when employees leave a firm, both the old and the new firm began citing each other’s patents more often.

This suggests that when an employee leaves for another firm, the old company still gains knowledge. The most likely explanation is the network created by departing employees. When employees leave an organization, they do indeed take ideas with them to the new firm…but they also expand the firm’s network. The coworkers left behind at the old firm gain a connection to the new firm and the ex-employee’s new ideas at that firm. In effect, departing employees have a cross-pollinating effect on the ideas of both organizations.

This effect was even more significant when the two firms were located far away from each other. The implication is that, given the distance, the old firm never would have encountered the ideas of the new firm without the departing employee moving between them.

Likewise, this effect seems to strengthen the theory of “structural holes,” which explains that gaps between two groups in a social network prevent needed information from being shared. Individuals who can fill those structural holes gain an advantage by transferring vital information from one group to another. The effect is even more pronounced when the two groups — in this case, companies — are in differing fields and thus are even more disconnected.

These findings imply that companies ought to support departing employees and create opportunities for former and current employees to interact and collaborate where possible. Some companies have begun creating alumni networks to facilitate just such interactions, though they are far from the norm.

Until they are, maintaining a personal network is each employee’s responsibility, including being deliberate about ways to stay in touch with former coworkers. If you’ve already moved on, consider thinking of ways to reconnect with old colleagues. If there are trade associations or communities groups you used to frequent as part of your old job, it may be worth keeping or restarting your membership as a way to rebuild your old ties. And if you’ve been left behind, make an effort to keep old ties alive. Create an unofficial group through social networks like LinkedIn or Facebook, or have a regular coffee date with former coworkers in the area.

There are a variety of ways to build or rebuild ties to former employees (or strengthen bridges before you become one yourself). If you’re planning your exit, consider how to ensure that old acquaintance is not forgot.

By David Burkus

[From: ]


Join Our Newsletter

Subscribe to our newsletter for regular job updates


Recent Posts

CityWide Talent

9/88 Pitt Street Sydney, NSW 2000 Australia
Phone: +61 2 9231 3411 Email: