March 3, 2002
You May Be Downsized, but You Can Stay in the Loop
By MELINDA LIGOS
AGILENT TECHNOLOGIES may have lost some of its finest employees when it cut its work force by 8,000 last year because of weak sales and profits. But it made sure that it didn't lose contact with all of them.
The company, a Hewlett-Packard (news/quote) spinoff that makes testing and measurement equipment for the telecommunications industry, has established an online alumni network to maintain ties with former workers around the country. And vice versa.
"This is our way of keeping the door open to bring some of these people back in the future," said Wendy Miller, a senior director for global talent at Agilent, who helped set up the network last summer. "We've been forced to let go of some really great workers."
So far, at least 10 percent of Agilent's former workers have logged on to the network, according to Ms. Miller. Some chat via e-mail with former co-workers and bosses, she said, while others browse company news reports or receive tips on résumé writing. A few have found job leads, although none have yet been rehired by Agilent.
Online alumni networks like Agilent's are gaining popularity, career experts say. Although the job market is tight right now, many companies have not forgotten how things were just two or three years ago, when they could not find enough qualified employees.
"Yesterday's talent crunch has taught us all something," said Barbara Marchilonis, director for career services at Drake Beam Morin, a career services and job-search company based in Boston. "Companies have a much stronger desire now to maintain a sense of community that they can tap into in times of expansion."
Of course, that may mean future savings when companies are ready to expand again. SelectMinds Inc., a New York company that builds alumni networks for large businesses, including Agilent's, calculates that Fortune 500 companies would save $12.5 million a year, on average, in recruiting costs if 10 percent of their new hires were former employees. It estimated that new hires were 40 percent less productive than rehires during the first quarter of work.
Alumni groups have been especially popular in industries like high technology, where nearly 700,000 jobs were cut in 2001, and in pharmaceuticals, where mergers have led to corporate restructurings, experts said.
When Pfizer (news/quote) bought Warner-Lambert two years ago, it set up an alumni Web site for 2,000 displaced workers. About 1,500 of them keep in touch through the network, according to Robert Todd, Pfizer's vice president for human resources for integration. "I get requests from former workers every day asking how to log on," Mr. Todd added. He said none of the former workers had been rehired so far.
Online networking can be a gold mine for people seeking new opportunities. After all, "the people you've worked with in the past know your talents better than anyone else," said Marjorie Brody, who runs a career consulting firm in Jenkintown, Pa. She advises clients to use such services to track down former colleagues and bosses, then to develop a plan for staying in contact.
"It could be as simple as saying you're going to e-mail five people a week just to touch base, or that you're going to set up a lunch with a former co-worker once a month," she said. "You never know when one of them might have a job lead that you'd be perfect for."
Stephen Sutter, a former product engineer for Agilent who now is president of CreateAbility Concepts, a company in Fort Collins, Colo., that creates communication devices for people with disabilities, regularly taps into Agilent's alumni site to find temporary help. He recently hired a former worker to critique his new marketing plan, and another for some computer programming.
"I don't have time to baby-sit people or sift through a bunch of résumés to weed out the good ones," he said. "If I know somebody worked at Agilent, I already know that they already have a certain level of talent, and that they probably work well with others."
Carole Gunst, a former employee in the product management division at Lotus Development, regularly taps into the networking site that she and two former colleagues set up after I.B.M. (news/quote) acquired the company in 1995. She said she decided to accept a position three years ago at a technology company in Boston after finding that two former Lotus workers were employed there. "I use the network to do my own detective work," said Ms. Gunst, who now runs her own marketing consulting business.
She, in turn, is approached regularly by former Lotus employees seeking advice on all kinds of issues — from starting their own consulting businesses to setting up their own Web sites, she said.
ONLINE networking has many unwritten rules. The first is never to criticize the company for which you once worked, Ms. Brody said. The rule applies, she added, "even if you don't want work for a company again."
"The world is small," Ms. Brody said, "People know people, and your words could come back to haunt you."
Experienced networkers also know that they should not wait until they need a job to contact their former colleagues. "It sounds a little artificial if you call someone after not speaking to them for six years and say, `Got any job leads for me?' " Ms. Brody said. "Ideally, you want to contact people when you don't need them, and build the relationship from there."
If a former co-worker helps you find a job, follow up with a note and a thank-you gift, Ms. Brody said.
"Don't just drop them like a hot potato," she added, "or they'll never help you again."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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