Warren Rodgers isn't likely to get an alumni club off the ground anytime soon. In the past three years, Rodgers has lost 17 employees and rehired 10 of them. He wants to corral 4 of the remaining 7. "I'll probably get half of those back," says the president of Computer Specialists Inc. (CSI). "Don't you think that's realistic?"
Well, no -- not for anybody except Rodgers, that is. He has developed a technique for making that goal a distinct possibility. Most chief executive officers, especially founders, treat a valued worker's departure as a personal affront: after all I've done for you, how could you do this to me? they ask. "That's a very negative approach," cautions Rodgers. "As an employer, you need to go the other way."
Boy, does Rodgers go the other way. He never forgets that every departing employee represents a good future hiring prospect. And Rodgers needs good prospects. Over the past seven years, CSI has grown at an average rate of 90% per year, reaching more than $5 million in sales last year. In 1986, the company earned the 75th spot on the INC. 500 list of America's fastest-growing private companies. CSI has added an employee about every other week for seven years -- not easy under any circumstances, but worse when all must be highly skilled computer programmers and systems analysts. Rodgers sends them on temporary assignments to such clients as banks and defense contractors.
It is painful for Rodgers to lose experienced employees whose work is beginning to pay big dividends. He needs to keep those employees in order to maintain quality service in the midst of the company's breakneck growth. "If you've got someone with a proven track record of performance," he says, "you really shouldn't lose that person."
Rodgers contends that rehiring someone is much more cost-effective than bringing in a fresh recruit. "The money we spend to get them back is incredibly little compared with what we get for it," he notes. Rehires are productive right away, which saves CSI about $2,500 per employee in orientation time. They don't have to come in for interviews, or relocate, which saves another $3,000 or so. And of course there's no fee to a placement agency, which can run as high as $10,000. The returning employees may even have picked up new skills that will make them more valuable to CSI's clients.
Beyond the per-employee savings, Rodgers has been able to trim CSI's recruiting budget because of the rehires. For instance, he spends at least $10,000 less per year on classified advertising. Twice a year, CSI stages career days at a local country club, where potential recruits can chat informally with company programmers. Were it not for rehiring, Rodgers figures he would have to shell out $3,000 for another such day every year. Since he started his rehiring crusade, in fact, Rodgers says he has saved more than $100,000 (see chart, right).
Rodgers makes former employees feel wanted -- hounded, even. Don Gross, a programmer analyst who returned last year after a dissatisfying stint away, never imagined he'd be back at his old desk. "But," he notes, "I really felt that Warren liked me. He wanted me to come back."
In rehiring, Rodgers has developed one cardinal rule: he never brings employees back solely by waving fatter paychecks in their faces. Do that, he warns, and you're positioning yourself for a bidding war the day a better offer comes along. Rodgers has even managed to hire back people for less than they were making at their other jobs. "Most people don't leave just because of money," he says. "Everybody's got a 'hot button'; you've just got to find it." (See box, "Pressing the Hot Button," page 135.)
Rodgers's search for that magic button begins on the day an employee announces plans to leave. He acts fast. In January 1985, for instance, when he heard that programmer Scott Tallent had resigned, he immediately suggested they have lunch. "Making employees top priority says something to them," notes Rodgers. "They remember it." By getting to Tallent fast enough, Rodgers thought he might be able to change his mind.
But Rodgers quickly saw that Tallent, who had been a stellar performer, was excited about the security of his new job as a systems coordinator at a bank. He was unlikely to be swayed. When that happens, says Rodgers, "I lay the groundwork for them to come back." While he may feel disappointed, Rodgers doesn't let it show. We hate to lose someone like you, Rodgers assured Tallent over lunch, but it really sounds as if you've got a great opportunity. And, hey, if things don't work out, you'll always have a job here.
During the rest of their meal, Rodgers mused on why people who had left CSI often returned: a frozen salary, a broken promise, or maybe a new boss. "I throw all this stuff out to plant seeds," says Rodgers. "That way, if the person starts to see a problem he'll think, 'Hey, that's exactly what Warren was talking about."
Once employees leave, Rodgers doesn't settle for being just a voice in the back of their heads. He likes to apply pressure in person as well. That's one reason he invites them to the three big blowouts he throws every year. They also get Christmas cards and invitations to golf outings. "We had a great time," says Tallent, reporting on the get-together he attended six months after leaving. "But [Rodgers] really started on me that day."
Rodgers uses the parties to aggressively woo back those who have strayed. At Tallent's first party as an ex-employee, Rodgers sauntered over to him after dinner. Remember, said Rodgers, whenever you want to come back, the door is open. Tallent shrugged it off. At the next party, they had a similar exchange. Says Tallent: "I really didn't take it too seriously."
He began to, though, the following August. At that anniversary party, Rodgers introduced Tallent to someone by saying, "Scott is an ex-employee, but he's tinkering with the idea of coming back." As if that weren't enough, Rodgers took Tallent's wife, Jackie, aside. I think Scott would be better off working with me, Rodgers told her; maybe you ought to talk to him. Recalls Rodgers: "Scott seemed perfectly content. But if you keep after them, I've learned, something may happen."
That something had begun happening earlier that summer, when the bank that employed Tallent announced layoffs and a salary freeze. Tallent's own job was safe, but he wasn't comfortable with the tense atmosphere. Rodgers had read about the bank's woes and didn't hesitate to bring them up when he spotted Tallent at the anniversary party. Tallent, you'll recall, had left CSI in search of greater security; Rodgers was, in effect, placing his finger on the hot button. But he didn't press . . . yet. Are you any more willing to come back? Rodgers simply asked. No thanks, replied Tallent, I'm going to ride it out.
By Christmas, four months later, Tallent wasn't so sure. The bank's problems had worsened. Now, Rodgers was ready to press the hot button. He approached Tallent at the CSI Christmas party and rehashed the bank's problems. Tallent confessed he wasn't enjoying work much. So, Rodgers implored, you think you are finally ready to make that change? Well, answered Tallent, maybe we ought to have lunch. That was the turning point; from there, Rodgers knew it was only a matter of time.
Rather than making employees feel embarrassed about coming back, Rodgers turns every homecoming into a victory. At each party, he stands in front of the assembled and solicits a round of applause for those who have returned since the last bash. After Tallent agreed to have lunch with him, Rodgers announced to 250 people that "9 people have rejoined us so far, and a 10th is about to."
The number of returnees is an integral part of CSI's company culture. Any time an employee returns, it's the top story in the company newsletter. "It really makes a statement to someone who is thinking about leaving," Rodgers notes. He makes sure that all potential hires can recite the return rate in their sleep. "It creates a very positive humanistic image," he says. "People hear about it, and come see us."
Five years ago, Rodgers's persona was anything but sympathetic. His most experienced progammers were leaving in droves -- at a time when his clients needed help in operating a new generation of faster, more sophisticated computers. "We were attracting a lot of people, so it didn't seem like a big deal," he says.
Finally, the sheer volume of defections began to bother him. So he called in a consultant to conduct exit interviews. Based on her talks with those who had given notice, the consultant concluded that Rodgers was creating a problem for himself. "By letting people go so easily, I made it easier for more people to leave," he now admits. He even met with some former employees. If you had responded to my resignation, one ex-employee told him, I probably wouldn't have left.
That's when Rodgers decided "to get over my ego hang-ups and start talking to people." Now, he's convinced there's no other way. "How far you go with it depends on your turnover rate," says Rodgers. CSI's own rate has shriveled from 20% to just over 2% in five years. Adds Rodgers, "You may not have to go to the extreme that we do."
Extreme is the right word. So extreme, in fact, that Rodgers worries that his turnover rate is now too low. At least a couple of employees, he admits, are too highly paid or too technologically advanced for their jobs. "They won't leave because we've got them so convinced that if they go, they'll end up back working for us," he says. "I've locked them in."
Not Scott Tallent, though. He feels anything but imprisoned. He's glad to be back, and is looking forward to this summer's party, when he's counting on Rodgers to tell everybody about number 10's return. "I'm sure he'll mention my name in his speech," says Tallent. "Sure, my return has worked out for him. But I also feel I've done the best thing for myself."