Nurturing Boomerang Employees

While nearly all HR managers recently surveyed said they would be glad to welcome back employees who had left on good terms, more than half of workers surveyed said it's unlikely they would apply for a job with a former employer. Where's the disconnect and how can HR repair it?

By Lin Grensing-Pophal

Just a few short years ago, employees were struggling to find jobs. How times have changed! Today, employers are increasingly finding themselves challenged to find and retain the top talent they need as the economy improves and baby boomers do, finally, show signs of exiting en masse. This shift in demand is putting a focus on a different type of employee -- boomerang employees -- those who return to their former organizations after leaving to accept a position with another organization.

Sometimes, as these employees discover, the grass isn't always greener on the other side of the fence.

When this happens -- and assuming they were valued contributors at their former organizations before they left -- HR professionals have an opportunity to welcome them back. That is, if they can overcome their objections to considering such a move in the first place.

According to this new survey from staffing firm Accountemps, the top reason for employees feeling that a return would not be in their best interests was "I didn't like management," at 23 percent; "I didn't like the corporate culture" and "I didn't like my job duties" both came in at 14 percent. "The company burned bridges when I left" was cited by 10 percent of respondents.

Management and culture mismatches can be difficult to overcome, but job duties and setting the wrong tone when an employee exits are areas of opportunity for HR to have a positive impact in terms of establishing a climate that is amenable to boomerang employees."We're in an age where more and more employees are free agents," says Ilene Siscovick, a New Yor-based partner and global careers leader at Mercer. That means that employers -- and HR professionals -- both need to view employees as customers, she says.

While it can be unfortunate when an employee leaves, there may be very good reasons for their departure, says Katie Essman, a Denver-based regional vice president at Robert Half.

"It may not reflect significant dissatisfaction with your company," she says, adding that departing employees may be leaving to follow a spouse to a new location, seeking additional education or experience, or simply wanting to see if the grass may be greener somewhere else.

"It's not uncommon for somebody to leave an organization and then realize, six months down the road, that they had it pretty good where they were," Essman says.

And when these thoughts emerge, HR leaders will want their organizations to be thought of fondly by returning workers. 

One of the most important interactions that can make or break the chances an employee will entertain the notion of returning to a prior organization is the reaction of their manager when they give their notice. HR professionals can have a positive impact here by ensuring that managers and supervisors understand beforehand the company's philosophy about rehiring employees, as well as recognize how their responses and future behaviors can impact the relationship going forward.

"They [managers] need to be trained -- almost like Management 101," says Siscovick. "They need to know what the appropriate thing to say is when an employee gives notice."

Laying that foundation can be as simple as making it abundantly clear that you would welcome the employee back, says Essman. Just be explicit. "One very simple thing is to tell them, 'We'd like to have you back if and when your situation may change.' If you've extended that courtesy of a welcome back with open arms, an employee is so much more willing to come back," she says, adding that treating departing employees with respect and courtesy is critical.

Beyond management of the exit process, experts say that staying in touch with departed employees can also be a best practice to ensure the old company remains a viable option for the departed worker in case the new job isn't what was expected or if, at some point in the future, the employee simply wishes to shift course again. Alumni networks can be a good way to do this, Siscovick says, noting they've become increasingly common in the consulting industry.

Each employee who exits will not be an employee HR leaders may wish to welcome back to the organization, of course. An employee who left to pursue additional education or gain new skills is one thing, while an employee who left because of dissatisfaction with pay, culture or management is another. Even those entertaining the idea of a return to a former employer may have expectations that may not be able to be met. Therefore, frank and open conversations between HR, the hiring manager and the returning employee can help to manage expectations and ensure a positive transition back into the organization.

HR also has work to do in terms of setting the stage for a former employee's return with the rest of the workforce. Not everyone will be on board with the "welcome back with open arms" approach to re-boarding boomerang employees, says Derik Timmerman, co-founder and CEO of Spreadsheet Sherpa, a productivity-services company and a former HR strategy consultant at McKinsey & Co

"Not everyone in the organization will see the HR department's wisdom in shrugging off an all-star's 'treasonous' departure," he says. "HR executives can mitigate this risk by syndicating the idea of a rehire with the relevant managers and peers that will be within the returning all-star's sphere of influence prior to meaningfully engaging the departed all-star."

There are other risks, as well, he says.

"While the talent benefits are clear, the drawbacks may not present until after the rehire is complete," he says. There is some risk, for example, that the returning employee will feel emboldened to be hypercritical of peers and management, bringing an 'I've-returned-to-save-the-day' attitude which could ruin any hopes of successful reintegration. 

"HR executives," he says, "will want to keep a close eye on the first three months by taking soundings every couple of weeks from managers, peers and the returning employee."

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Apr 20, 2016
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