You know the drill. A worker moves on from a company for various reasons with a meh attitude from management, there's a little blip in operations as their replacement gets the hang of things, and the original worker dissolves into the time-space continuum.

What a lousy script for conditioning everyone to see themselves as disposable.

Graph database management company Neo4j isn't having it.

Celebrating every exit

In the quest to help workers see the enormous value they have as contributors and more generally as individuals, Neo4j has made it part of their mission and culture to make a huge, positive deal out of it when employees walk out the door. Every departure is announced with the same rigor you'd see for a new hire, and the entire team is encouraged to reach out to connect with the person leaving.

"In my experience," says Lance Walter, Neo4j's Chief Marketing Officer, "most Silicon Valley companies treat former employees like they've been 'excommunicated'--[they] don't interact, don't even mention their name. So this is an antithesis to that mindset."

How to keep the link strong (and why it makes sense)

Walter notes that there's no set formula for how to keep the connection open. You can do whatever is comfortable for you, whether that's connecting on LinkedIn, exchanging emails, or even having dinner with the former employee (Walter's actually doing that this upcoming week).

But the why behind the communication is beautifully clear.

"You might work with that employee again, might find a situation where they could help you or you could help them, and there's no reason to have a positive employee relationship end up on a 'down note'."

Motivation and success from being among the few

According to Walter, there really wasn't a magic "aha" moment when Neo4j realized just how important employee relationships are. The practice simply evolved because of the nature of what the company does. Since there aren't many other companies working in their specific area of expertise, the relationships the business builds are critical.

But Walter says the fact people are willing to and succeed in building deeper connections distinguishes the company, creating a feeling of comfort and connection that makes people not want to leave.

And the company's numbers back the assertion that the approach works. Workers leave by choice at a rate of only 1 percent, which Walter asserts is best-in-class for startup tech.

"I remember being blown away in my first week attending a sales team meeting and meeting sales reps who had been with the company for more than five years, which is nearly unheard of in tech," says Walter.

And overall, the company is thriving. It currently boasts more than 300 enterprise customers and is on track to have over 300 employees this year. The Neo4j platform has been downloaded more than 15 million times, and in the most recent round of venture funding led by Morgan Stanley, the team took in $80 million, bringing the total raised to $160 million.

How to press 'copy'

As for how to replicate this success, Walter's advice is relatively simple. Don't just say culture matters. Do. Something. Anything. But take action.

"[...Employees quickly realize when leadership is merely paying lip service to the idea," Walter warns. "It's important to deliver fully on corporate culture initiatives. For example, if you send out employee surveys, be prepared to listen well and act upon those prevailing sentiments.

"In addition, corporate culture statements usually include integrity, trust, cooperation. It's important to dig deep and find the key properties about your corporate culture and work to articulate them and ensure they are embodied in the relevant processes."

Is taking action harder than lip service?

Um, yes.

But all people really want in this world, in business or otherwise, is just to know that they matter, that they leave a mark, that the effort they put into people isn't going to turn to dust, wounds and insecurity. If you give them that and show them that there really is a point to it all, if you can keep reaching out, if you offer a better quality of life and not just better business, they'll follow you anywhere, whether they're still technically on your payroll or not.

It's not too much to ask, no matter how busy you are.

Published on: Apr 1, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.