Q: I was let go from my company last week after five years. In that time, I made a lot of great professional connections—both internally and from the company’s client base. How can I maintain these connections? What’s an appropriate approach?
A: If the question you’re asking is “Can I steal my former company’s clients?” the answer is no. Your internal relationships, however, are valuable and those are yours to maintain or end however you choose. The key thing to keep in mind as you navigate the changed nature of your professional relationships is that you may be bound contractually to not contact the company’s clients. The legal terms of your employment and separation from the company may ultimately define what your next steps are.
Non-compete and non-solicitation clauses are common components of employee contracts. If you start a new job that’s similar to your old one and in a similar industry and you approach former clients, it may be in violation of your employment contract. Similarly, the contract might have a non-solicitation clause saying that you can’t solicit any of your internal connections away from the company. Make sure you understand the fine print in your employment contract before approaching your former company’s clients or former colleagues, as certain actions could serve to initiate a legal response from the company you left.
LinkedIn and other social media facilitates easy contact among professional circles these days, so you may find that former clients or colleagues are the ones initiating contact with you. If you’re looking for work, then you can certainly have a conversation with them for networking purposes. But if you’re in a position that is competitive to your former organization, you may need to explicitly let them know that you can’t be their contact at your new company. In situations like this, people often have wait-out periods where they have to wait a set period of time or act in a different role than their previous one before they can resume the same kind of work they were doing. Be mindful of potentially violating any contracts in personal and professional communication, and make sure any organization you join is clear on the requirements of any contractual obligations you have.
Part of your approach when reconnecting with former clients should be crafting an appropriate statement regarding your exit from the company. Your contract may have a non-disparagement clause, but even more importantly, unwarranted negative talk about a former employer is typically viewed as unprofessional and undesired; it could tarnish your reputation more than the organization’s. Consider how you want to represent why and how you left. Everything has to be the truth, but the level of detail is up to you. You might say “It was clear the company was going in one direction, and I really wanted to go in another direction. I loved my five years there and continue to wish them the best in the future.” Position yourself well while avoiding trash talk toward the company. No one benefits from disparagement.
If you’re interested in simply maintaining a personal connection with these contacts, that is perfectly acceptable. There should just be no business that’s similar to your former company and no solicitation. Perhaps you’ve gone into a different field after leaving your organization and you follow up with your contacts to maintain a professional relationship in your network. This is acceptable. The main concern is making sure that your actions are in no way competing with or hurting the livelihood of your former employer.
Apart from the legal business aspect, there are also social norms and cues to be aware of as relationships change. When reaching out to former colleagues, consider the nature of your connection in the past and what the expectations might be going forward. For example, your former lunch buddies might be less inclined—or less comfortable—maintaining the relationship. If it’s work friends who you went out with regularly or saw outside of work functions, you might see a greater effort to reach out and maintain contact. If you do continue contact, don’t ask inappropriate questions, badmouth the organization, or ask for workplace gossip. Avoid anything that will put them in a difficult. Tap into your emotional intelligence skills and be aware of being a burden; this has to be a mutual relationship, so if you are sensing a lack of reciprocity on their end, it may be time to move on. Some relationships will continue, and some will not—this is just a fact of life.
You certainly shouldn’t be downloading the company’s client base data before you leave—that would be stealing. But personal and non-competitive professional networking relationships are well within the realm of appropriate contact and can even be a benefit in future career success.