Are You Thinking About Boomeranging?

Boomerang employees are people who have left an organization and then been rehired at a later date. It used to be taboo. In fact, about 50% of HR professionals surveyed say their organizations had policies that prohibited rehiring former employees in the past. But over 75% of those same HR professionals say their companies are more willing to rehire boomerang employees now than ever before.

Should you consider returning to a former employer? And if you do, what can you expect? Talent Plus (the company I work for) actively recruits boomerangs. We know that talented people sometimes have opportunities for growth elsewhere that they just can’t – and shouldn’t — pass up. And when their circumstances (and ours) change, we actively recruit them back.

Kim Turnage is my co-author of the book, Managing to Make a Difference (Wiley), and she is a Talent Plus boomerang. In this post, she shares her insights on this type of career decision.

How did you decide to return to the company?

I got a call from our recruiter, Kyle Bruss, asking me if I would consider coming back. The timing and the opportunity were both right. I knew the company culture and values. Many of the same leaders were still there even though I had been away for about five years. I believed in the company’s mission and believed I could add value by coming back in a different role than the one I had left five years earlier. I consulted some people I trusted who were still working with the company and decided to make the leap. It was a great decision!

Did you try to pick up where you left off? 

I did not. I approached the role with humility and a commitment to learning. I had done some parts of the job before, but I needed a refresher. And a lot had changed, too. I assumed nothing and asked a lot of questions.

I also invested in strengthening relationships with people I knew from before and cultivating new relationships with people who had joined the company in my absence. I considered myself a newbie with some background knowledge and tried to remember that what I thought I knew from the past might not be applicable in the present.

What did you say when people asked questions about why you left and why you came back?

If anyone asked (and even sometimes when I could tell people were curious but too polite to ask) I told the truth.

  • Why I left: I had worked for the company full-time for four years then moved to working part-time from home for an additional three years after my second child was born. Some other opportunities highly aligned with my interests became available during that time, and I made the choice to leave the company in order to pursue those opportunities.
  • Why I came back: My family had moved to another city, and I was in the process of deciding what to do next when our recruiter, Kyle, called and offered me an opportunity to work remotely. This opportunity fit very well with my talents, served the needs of the company, and allowed me to do work that contributes to a greater good. It was an easy decision to come back.

How did you re-establish yourself within the company? 

I acted like I would at any new job. I did my job well and raised my hand for special projects where I could make positive contributions. I worked on establishing trust-based relationships with my manager and the members of my team. Working remotely, hundreds of miles from our company headquarters, made that process a little slower and more complicated, but my colleagues were equally committed to building those relationships. One of the key ways I built trust was by looking for opportunities help other people achieve their goals.

Was it harder or easier than you expected?

Yes. Some parts were easier and some were harder.

I knew the culture and knew some current employees who helped accelerate my ability to establish new connections with new people. I was open to learning, and several leaders invested the time to help me connect what I knew before to what I needed to know in the present to succeed.

The hardest part was less about coming back and more about the fact that I was coming back as a (really) remote worker. I had worked from home before, but in the same city as the company’s headquarters. When I boomeranged, my home was hundreds of miles away from the office and my family commitments made travel very difficult and infrequent. That distance was the source of most of the difficulties I encountered, but I was working with a company who had extensive experience with people working remotely…and with people boomeranging…and we worked through issues effectively, primarily because we started from a foundation of trust.

What advice do you have for people thinking about boomeranging?

  • First of all, consider how and why you left the company. Were you on good terms? Can you tell a true, positive story about why you left and why you want to come back?
  • Make sure you have an accurate picture of the organization as it is today. What are you hearing from the people who are recruiting you or who would make the decision about whether to run with your desire to return to the company? Have you maintained positive relationships with some other people in the company whose insights you can trust? What can they tell you about how things have changed, and how consistent are those changes with your goals and the way you want your next role to look?
  • Consider the role you’ll be coming back to. How is it similar to and different from the one you left? What knowledge and experience have you gained in your absence that will add unique value? What has changed in the interim that you will need to learn about or retool for?

Thanks for reading, and thanks to Kim Turnage for her worthwhile advice about boomeranging. As always, I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Thinking Of Bringing Back Former Employees?

I’ve brought back several former employees, some of whom had resigned and some I asked to leave. I’ve had some successes and some failures doing this, so in this post I’ll share my perspective on the issue.

In all cases, you should start from scratch in your decision-making process. By this I mean that whatever your process is for considering a complete stranger, put this former employee through the same process. Consider everything you learned about this person during his or her employ to be extremely important information, but don’t make the mistake of relying solely on that information. You’ll learn new, important things when you go through your standard process.

No matter how much time has passed since this person worked for you, remember that the situation has changed. The more time, the greater the change. Even if very little time has passed, I assure you the situation has changed. For one thing, there are different people, internal and external, who are competing for this role. Your product mix might have changed. You might have re-organized. The person might have to report to a different supervisor. Your organization might be facing different challenges currently. You get the point. There are all kinds of changes that might well materially affect your decision.

You should also refresh your memory about why this person left. For example, a client recently re-hired a person who was very effective in his sales role, but had been fired for unethical practices about two years ago. In the interview process the candidate spoke eloquently about how he had changed. Sales were down and the client was a little desperate. I advised the client to pass, but they re-hired him. I predict they’ll end up terminating him again for similar reasons.

When the reasons for terminating someone are based on fundamental character traits like work ethic, integrity, or positivity, to name a few, DON’T re-hire the person. There is only a tiny likelihood that they’ve changed enough to make a difference. Every time you hire someone, you’re placing a bet. When you’re betting that a person’s character has changed, the odds against this bet are huge.

I saw this recently in our company. An employee left voluntarily, was gone for a few years, and inquired about whether he could return doing the same kind of work he had done previously. While he was with us, he produced an impressive amount of billable work, but he took shortcuts in his work and too often did not fulfill his commitments. He told us that he had been struggling with an addiction problem during that entire time, but now he was clean. He stated that the flaws in his previous performance would not occur. Frankly, if we could have enjoyed that level of productivity without the performance flaws, it would have been a terrific win-win solution.

We decided to give him a second chance. Sadly, it didn’t work out. We watched his work very closely, and his propensity to take shortcuts remained even though the addiction was gone. He was fully capable of doing high quality work without the shortcuts, but he simply wasn’t motivated to do so. The propensity to take shortcuts was part of his character, not part of his disease. He resigned.

To be honest, I might well make the same decision again. I believe that giving him a chance reflected well on our leadership and our culture. When a person’s previous performance was negatively affected by drugs, alcohol or similar problems, and they’re now clean and sober – that’s when I’m most likely to give that person a chance.

If a person left due to performance problems, you should ask, “What’s changed that gives us confidence the outcome will be better this time?” Becoming clean and sober is a good example. Or perhaps the person was in a very bad fit for their talent last time, and now you have a role that’s an excellent fit. Perhaps he or she had a terrible supervisor (who is now gone). Perhaps the person earned a relevant degree. These are all good reasons to give a person another chance. If you don’t have a clear answer to that question, “What’s changed?” I advise you to pass.

Before you re-hire a former employee, check their references with current employees who used to work with them. On more than one occasion, this step has caused me not to extend an offer to a former employee. I was enlightened about certain aspects of their performance, and I learned more about how the decision would be perceived. When you re-hire a former employee, you must be prepared to explain why.

One final thought. It’s often the case that while the person was with you, you tolerated certain less-than-desirable aspects of their personality or performance because in the big picture you didn’t feel like making them “deal breakers”. But now, when you’re considering re-hiring this person, those deficiencies might take on more significance. If the prospect of dealing with them again is unappealing, it’s okay to pass.

To summarize:

  1. Put this person through your standard selection process.
  2. Refresh your memory about why this person left.
  3. Check references with your current employees who used to work with this person.
  4. Ask what’s changed about the person or your organization that gives you confidence you’ll get a different outcome this time.
  5. Be prepared to explain your decision publicly.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg