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By: Russell Pearlman
It wasn’t an email Marie Krebs expected to compose to her old CEO. After all, just a few months earlier, in one of her last conversations with him, she’d told him she was quitting.
The Paris-based Krebs began her career as an administrative assistant buying cookies and bananas for the staff at her firm and worked her way up to become its first people operations specialist. She created the firm’s employee guide, covering the organization’s values, security procedures, vacation policies, and nearly every other aspect of its corporate culture. But after three years, she wanted management responsibilities and assurances that she could work full-time even when the pandemic eased. A new organization promised just that—and nearly doubled her salary—so Krebs left her old job on good terms in mid-2021.
Within weeks, however, she knew the new place wasn’t going to be a good fit. So, feeling cheeky, she wrote to her old CEO and signed off with, “If you hear of any stunning roles, you know where I am.” And on the same day, the CEO replied, asking her if she was open to returning. Her former role was no longer open, but a reorganization had taken place and the company could benefit from not only her familiarity with its culture but also the new experiences she had picked up since her departure. Over the next couple of weeks, Krebs interviewed with multiple other companies and got five offers, but ultimately she accepted a new role at her old organization. “I had a fresh perspective, and I could hit the ground running,” Krebs says.
Who would have guessed? After more than a year of headlines and handwringing over the so-called Great Resignation, the past year has seen a newer trend dubbed the Great Regret. By some surveys, nearly of quarter of the people who quit their job regretted the move, and now, in these uncertain economic times, many are returning to the old roles. Indeed, so-called “boomerang” employees have become a hot new commodity, accounting for almost 5 percent of all new hires, according to LinkedIn. More importantly, they represent a new outlook toward a group once considered old news at best, and personae non gratae at worst. Instead, firms are hoping “boomerangers” can use their experience and enthusiasm to be game-changers. “Smart companies are pushing this the most,” says Abbie Shipp, a management professor at Texas Christian University who has studied the impact of former employees returning to their old organizations. “Being a boomerang employee doesn’t carry the negative stigma that it once did.” Experts who have studied the phenomenon say these former employees can jump right back into their old company and outperform a new hire doing the same work for about the same pay.
But the quality of a boomerang’s performance is not a sure thing. Research indicates that, as a group, these employees may not be any more loyal or productive over the long run. Whether it’s even the best career strategy for the boomeranging employee is a matter of fierce debate. In some instances, boomerangs may actually become victims of the higher expectations their organizations place upon them.
It wasn’t that long ago that many organizations weren’t particularly keen on rehiring departed employees. The reasons for this were understandable, but they went well beyond keeping poor performers from returning. In a 2015 study, nearly half of 1,800 US HR professionals surveyed said that at one time their companies had a policy against rehiring former employees, whether they left in good standing or not.
Many more organizations didn’t have policies explicitly forbidding former employees from returning, but managers knew that these employees were essentially off limits. Sometimes it was strictly about money. Previous employees often wanted to return to—or even increase—the salaries, vacation, retirement, and other compensation they’d had when they left. Unlike the cost of business lost to a new employee taking time to get up to speed, this compensation was tangible and easy for any hiring manager to spot, and gave the impression that boomerang employees were generally more expensive than new hires. “There was a time when you worried more about dollars and cents,” says Patricia Huska, chief people officer at American Express Global Business Travel.
For other bosses, the issue was considerably more emotional. Two decades later, one HR executive vividly remembers how his CEO, when hearing that someone had quit, would often say, “I never want to see them again.” There was no chance the company would ever rehire a former colleague. “A former colleague was perceived as a betrayer,” the HR executive says. Indeed, before he became mayor of New York, Mike Bloomberg was famous for his no-rehire edicts at the media and analytics company he founded. He preferred not to shake a quitting employee’s hand. Even if the person came back two years later with experience and skills his company needed, Bloomberg wouldn’t budge. “Two years later! We wouldn’t even remember who he or she was,” he said in a 1998 interview.
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But over the past few years, that attitude has softened at many organizations. In the 2015 study, 76 percent of HR professionals said they had become more open to hiring former employees. Shrinking job tenures might be driving some of the reevaluation of boomerangs. Before the pandemic, the average job tenure in the US was 4.2 years, a number that already had been steadily declining over the prior two decades. Given the need to consistently refresh the workforce, it’s not surprising that many organizations have become more amenable to former colleagues interested in returning.
The pandemic certainly accelerated the trend. During the spring of 2020, when no one knew what impact COVID-19 would have on business, many companies assumed the worst, and millions were laid off. When the economy improved, companies needed workers again. At the start of the COVID-19 lockdowns, American Express Travel laid off 1,200 front-line travel counselors and salespeople, Huska says. Worldwide travel came to a near standstill. Over the next several months, as travel rebounded, the company had to refill those 1,200 positions. Nine hundred of them, or 75 percent, were filled by people who had previously worked for the company, Huska says.
This softening stance doesn’t only stem from a desperate demand to fill spots. Boomerang employees often can be a safer bet than new hires, says Bernard Garrigues, an HR executive who has held top positions in manufacturing, consumer products, and banking industries.
Boomerangs already know the organization’s culture. Plus, they’ve had the experience of leaving and seeing that, for whatever reason, the grass wasn’t always greener at other organizations. “So, they come back and they are more motivated,” Garrigues says.
At the same time, employers highly value the experience a former employee acquires after taking a new job elsewhere. Some might have gained management experience that wouldn’t have been available to them at their original employer. Others learn about a whole new industry. Ann Marie Gorden started at the public-relations agency FCA Communications right out of college in 2008. She loved the culture there and credits the organization for teaching her the skills needed to be successful in communications. But after four years she wanted management experience; she also wanted to leave the Philadelphia area. Several years later—during which she ran communications for multiple private and public sector organizations—she was ready once again for the sense of community FCA offered. The firm brought her back in 2019 and promoted her to vice president last year. “I didn’t need a lot of hand holding,” Gorden says.
As companies become more open to hiring former employees, academics have begun researching the impact boomerang employees have when they return. Cornell University professors spent six years tracking the performance of boomerang employees versus new hires in similar roles at a large US-based healthcare company. Their research, released last year, showed that the boomerangs consistently received stronger performance evaluations than other new hires, says JR Keller, one of the professors who conducted the study. The impact was greatest in roles where employees had to interact with others to get jobs done—such as legal, HR, and IT—and it was consistent regardless of where on the corporate ladder the boomerangs were. The boomerang employees, Keller says, knew the company’s unwritten rules and how best to win over colleagues. “Boomerangs were perceived as insiders,” Keller says, even though they had actually left the organization. Boomerangs also weren’t particularly pricey to bring back, either. On average, the returning employees cost the company only 3 percent more than a comparable new hire, Keller says.
But the research isn’t all glowing. Keller says that while boomerangs generally had higher performance ratings than a comparable new hire, they also, surprisingly, were more likely to get fired. Their supervisors were often less tolerant of their slipups, Keller says: “Managers were more likely to cut bait.” A 2020 study, meanwhile, found that boomerang employees performed no better or worse, as judged by their performance reviews, than comparable new hires. It’s not certain that boomerangs will be much happier at their prior firms, either. In this study, which looked at more than 30,000 workers at a retailer, the boomerang employees were more likely to leave the company than other employees. In many cases, they tended to leave for the same reasons they left the first time, says Michael A. Campion, a Purdue University management professor and one of the study’s authors.
Still, a surprising number of organizations have been ramping up their pursuit of former employees. Those that seek out boomerangs cite several ways to improve the odds that the reunion will be a good experience for everyone. The first is making a good impression on the employee before they leave the first time. It sounds intuitive, but people who have fond memories of an organization are more inclined to give the place another shot later in their careers. Being transparent with employees, treating them with respect and fairness, and making their efforts feel important: they all help. That attitude should persist even after the employee leaves, particularly if they were laid off. When American Express Travel had to lay off its employees during the pandemic, the company extended their health insurance benefits, continued to give them access to learning and development software, and kept them abreast of ongoing developments. “There’s a pocket of people who will come back because you treat them well,” Huska, the executive, says.
During exit interviews, Keller says, companies can identify employees who could be good candidates to rehire down the road. Many companies establish alumni networks to give former employees a forum for networking, but savvy organizations will have already tagged which alums they want to maintain relationships with before that employee’s last day.
Companies also can take advantage of the information they have on file about boomerang applicants. When a former employee reapplied to his company, Garrigues made sure to look up their performance ratings. Surprisingly, experts say, organizations don’t always do this relatively straightforward check. “We would know if they are a producer already, and we would look closely at a marginal performer,” Garrigues says.
As for Krebs, the Paris-based returnee, her old firm had grown from 50 people to 70. One of her first responsibilities was to tear apart that employee guide that she had spent her first tenure putting together. But she says it was the kind of challenge she wanted. Her experience outside the company has given her not only more confidence, but also a fresh perspective on the rules and policies that can be implemented to benefit both the company and her colleagues. Plus, she appreciated the welcome that her new “old” colleagues gave her. “They pretended that there was a magician and—poof!—I reappeared.”