Accommodating Employees in Semi-Retirement

Accommodating Employees in Semi-Retirement

When a star employee announces he or she is thinking of retirement, it’s bound to make an employer wince—no savvy company wants to lose all of the knowledge and experience that individual brings to the table. And while many employees approaching retirement age may wish to explore other avenues of life, the thought of severing their connection to the professional world can be downright terrifying. For those looking for options, there is semi-retirement, but the question is, can your firm accommodate such an arrangement?

It depends on how you define semiretirement (or, in HR lingo, “phased retirement”). Nancy Collamer, a speaker and career coach based in Old Greenwich, CT, and author of Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit from Your Passions During Semi-Retirement, points out that phased retirement can be modeled in a number of ways: the employee may work a set number of hours a week on a part-time basis; they may only work during peak times of the year; or they may serve as a consultant for special projects. Phased retirement may also be truly phased—the employee plans to fully retire in a fixed period of time, gradually decreasing their workload as their retirement date approaches. Not only does the company have to examine whether it’s structured in such a way to render any of these scenarios feasible, Collamer notes that both employer and employee must determine how this new arrangement will affect the person’s benefits, since a reduction in hours could have an impact on things like their eligibility for health insurance, profit-sharing, and their company pension plan.

Chris Foreman retired from Community Professional Loudspeakers as chief operating officer in late 2012. Prior to that, his career included positions at Electronic Contracting Company in Lincoln, NE, as well as Panasonic, JBL, and Altec Lansing. These days he’s back in Lincoln doing business consulting, some technical consulting, tech writing, and ad and publicity copywriting under the guise of his own firm, Wordworks Consulting. He notes that for both employers and employees that are considering a semi-retirement arrangement, one important item to address is whether or not the semi-retired individual will actually continue on as bona fide employee (albeit one who works less), or as an independent contractor. “In my case, I have several clients, and it would be easy for me or my clients to justify that I am indeed an independent contractor,” he said. However, if the semi-retired person is working exclusively for your organization, under labor law, you probably won’t be able to get away with declaring them as an independent contractor––they will still most likely be considered an employee. (Foreman points out that this is similar to the issues that Uber is being forced to address concerning the legal employment status of its drivers in many states and countries.) “You better get that straight, and get it straight in the beginning.”

Chris Foreman retired from Community Professional Loudspeakers in late 2012 and established his own business and technical consultancy. He notes that the traditional concept of retirement––where people stop working at 65––is changing. While some think of semi-retirement as a form of part-time work, for Susan Heathfield, a human resources expert based in Williamston, MI, employers should not treat semi-retirees as part-timers. “[Part-time work] is a whole different category of employment,” she said, adding that “part-time” insinuates an agreement that the employee is required to work for so many hours during so many days a week, and often in a job that doesn’t match their elevated skills set. “But a semi-retired employee might want to spend January and February in Florida … if you’re semi-retired and you’re looking at the next chapter in your life, [a part-time arrangement is] not very attractive because it doesn’t allow you to have many options. And a semi-retired person is mostly looking for options.”

While they’re crucial in the formulation of a successful arrangement, these are logistical issues. The most important factor in determining whether or not both you, and the employee in question, are cut out for this is just how they’re going to continue to contribute value to the organization. One big part of tapping into the value of a semi-retired professional who has racked up decades of industry experience is transforming them into mentors. But are they willing to act as teacher and counselor to their younger colleagues? “They’ve got to replace themselves, and they’ve got to be willing to do that,” Heathfield said. “Not all people can get into the mode where their true job is to pass on every single skill they have, every single contact they have, to the other people that are going to be there after them.”

Foreman advises companies to figure out just what they would be losing out on if that individual were to leave for good. “Is it their Rolodex? Is it their knowledge of historic products? Is it their skills and expertise in some form of engineering? What is it that this person really provided that you don’t want to lose?” he said. Once that is established, then the issue becomes: can you create a position that is flexible enough to enable this person to continue to apply their skills and expertise while semi-retired?

Nancy Collamer is a speaker and career coach based in Old Greenwich, CT, and author of Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit from Your Passions During Semi-Retirement. This is where things circle back to logistics. An employee who was charged with managing legacy software code, for example, may be able to continue working on a semi-retired basis quite easily. “If that’s what this employee knows, then you don’t have to worry about them learning new things, keeping up with new technology, meeting new people, being out in the field, and going to conferences–– you just want that skill,” Foreman said. “No problem––that person can work from home on a project basis.” But what if the professional in question was one of your star sales trainers? People in sales need to remain current in their product knowledge, and to be effective, they must be developing new contacts and nurturing existing relationships constantly. If they shift into semi-retirement, how can you best put their skills to use? “Maybe they train the sales trainers,” Foreman said. It’s a little different than managing legacy software, as it requires the individual to commit to coming into the office and maybe even working in the field.

In a way, the transition employees make between full-time and semi-retired status is similar to the onboarding process many companies apply to new recruits. With this in mind, Collamer acknowledges that there may be a bit of trial and error involved, and “like any new work arrangement, it’s helpful to have more check-ins at the beginning so that you can both have an opportunity to talk about what’s going on before it escalates into any sort of major problem,” she said. She also reminds employers they have a role in ensuring that the semi-retired individual continues to be perceived as valuable to the organization, and included in meetings, company events, and even training sessions. “You need to be really on alert to keep the person functioning as an integral member of the team.”

While on the surface a semiretirement arrangement can serve to retain star employees, Collamer suggests that it can also promote loyalty among younger members of a company. “Don’t underestimate the value of providing phased retirement and the message that it sends to younger employees about how an organization treats its workers,” she said. “When employees see that, they say, ‘Wow. Look at the way they’re treating their people––that’s pretty cool. This might be an organization I want to stay with.’”

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor.

What Does “Retirement” Really Mean?

Chris Foreman, who retired from Community Professional Loudspeakers in late 2012 and established his own business and technical consultancy, notes that the traditional concept of retirement––where people stop working at 65––is changing: some people continue on in their careers either by choice or financial necessity; others may opt to retire outright, with the middle ground being semi-retirement. “It’s worth considering that middle ground,” he said. “In my case, in enabled me and [my wife] Lynnelle to come back to be close to our families, and yet I still get to work, I bring in a little bit of extra money, I keep up with the business and stay in touch with all of my [industry] friends––the big family that I developed over all these years––and I have an excuse to go to the trade shows. I would say what you need to do is recognize that your priorities are going to change some, but you have more options than ever. Consider those options. And what we are calling semi-retirement is definitely a good one.”
—C.H.