Coming Home

Increasingly, former employees are being welcomed back with open arms, as long as they possess the requisite skills and attitudes.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014
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As global director of talent acquisition and management for New York-based KPMG, Eileen Raymond enjoyed the challenges associated with working for a large multinational. She had been with the firm since 1996 when she left to join its spun-off consulting organization, BearingPoint, in 2001, serving as director of recruiting for the Amsterdam-based organization.

By 2006, however, Raymond had given birth to her second child and decided that moving to a smaller local firm would better enable her to juggle the demands of work and family. That April, she joined Fairfax, Va.-based SRA International Inc. as director of talent acquisition and management. She had worked there just one year when she heard from a former colleague in senior talent acquisition at KPMG, asking if she would consider returning to the fold. Raymond's initial reaction was to decline because she felt being a mom would prevent her from meeting the demands of the job. Her unrelenting former colleague enticed her to at least come in for an interview, so she relented, fully expecting to turn down the offer.

During the interview, Raymond discovered KPMG had changed dramatically since she had been there a decade earlier. Its support for flexible work arrangements -- including the option of working from home -- had been featured in Working Mother magazine. That alone spoke volumes for the mother of two. Raymond was also pleased to find KPMG had abandoned its "partner-centric" focus in exchange for one centered on employees' needs and freedom to advise the company on improvements. She rejoined KPMG as executive director of experienced-hire (or non-new-hire) recruiting in May 2007.

Today, Raymond couldn't be happier. She describes it as "a wonderful experience" -- so wonderful, in fact, she personally has helped facilitate the return of other former KPMG employees, including at least 10 recruiters.

Each year, 10 percent to 15 percent of KPMG's 4,500 "experienced new hires" are actually rehires -- or boomerangs, as they are commonly called. Raymond believes former employees are enthusiastic about rejoining the professional-services firm because there's a "great buzz" about its new initiatives.

Apparently, what's happening at KPMG is happening elsewhere too, underscoring the old adage "how times have changed." Not long ago, former employees were widely regarded as disloyal and undesirable. Few companies would have even thought of rehiring them, much less remaining in virtually continuous contact via alumni networks. Yet that's exactly what a wide variety of companies are doing, actively communicating with former employees, aggressively courting them and enthusiastically welcoming them back into the fold. In fact, boomerang hiring now ranks sixth in terms of hiring volume, just behind college recruits, according to the 2013 Source of Hire Report from CareerXRoads, a Kendall Park, N.J.-based recruiting consultancy.

So what changed? Why did companies go from practically blackballing former employees to rolling out the red carpet? According to Beth Carvin, CEO and president of Nobscot Corp., a Kailua, Hawaii-based retention-management and metrics firm, employers began rethinking their attitudes toward former employees during the dot-com boom of the late '90s, when throngs of people left companies to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors and recruiting became difficult.

"It caused management at some of the bigger old-school companies to re-examine their hiring practices because they simply weren't getting the people they needed," says Carvin. "[Boomerang hiring] began out of desperation, but as companies began realizing successes with rehires, they came to realize there was no reason they should be closing the door on people they otherwise would be eager to hire."

At the same time, organizations began recognizing that merely leaving the company doesn't necessarily mean someone is disloyal. Often, it simply means another opportunity was a better fit at the time. According to Paul Millard, co-founder and managing partner of The Millard Group, a Middletown, Conn.-based technology and executive-search firm, today's employers understand that leaving for a few years is a natural means of satisfying a desire to explore and further one's career and should not be viewed as a personal affront.

In some instances, life circumstances, such as the need to care for an ailing parent, makes it a necessary career change, says Rob Chipman, people services vice president of talent and recruiting for Denver-based DaVita Healthcare Partners Inc., which rehired 1,700 former employees -- 15 percent of its "new hires" -- in 2013. Leaving a company doesn't make you ineligible for rehire, he says.

"It's healthy when people make the decision to move on and it's healthy when they decide to come back," says Chipman. "We accept that people are humans and need to make choices, but it's not held against them in terms of having opportunities for the future."

Game Changer

Boomerangs have long been a "critical recruiting channel" for New York-based Ernst & Young, says Larry Nash, Americas director of experienced and executive recruiting, who calls the practice "part of our DNA." Last year, the firm rehired 350 alumni in the United States across all levels. Boomerangs account for 11 percent of the firm's total U.S. workforce and 20 percent of its executive hires, comprised of partners, principals and executive directors.

Ernst & Young relies on a staff of alumni relations team members -- 20 globally and eight in the Americas -- to stay in touch with its approximately 500,000 alumni worldwide, including 200,000 throughout the United States and Canada. The firm employs a multifaceted technology-heavy approach to communicating with former employees and cluing them in to returning opportunities, including an alumni website and social-media presence, with multiple groups on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, along with an assortment on videos on YouTube.

"Technology has been an absolute game changer at facilitating the connection and helping us see what new skills and experiences people have gathered over the years," says Nash.

John Sullivan, professor of management at San Francisco State University in Pacifica, Calif., says maintaining an alumni network used to be a monumental task, but technology has eliminated the burden and made it virtually effortless -- and remarkably inexpensive -- to stay in touch.

"You used to have to mail a letter or a newsletter. It was expensive and time-consuming, if you could even find them," says Sullivan. "Now, with LinkedIn, you can find every employee who's ever left and contact them through the site. If you want to form an alumni group, you can do it on Facebook. People are used to joining groups on social media, so it becomes a natural thing to maintain that connection."

Even if former employees aren't actively engaging in alumni networks, there are ways to assess whether they might be open to coming back. If they update their LinkedIn profile or publish a new blog post after a long period of dormancy, Sullivan says, that may indicate they are itching to make a career change. Low-tech strategies can be helpful, too. Sullivan suggests companies pay close attention to reference calls, for example, viewing them as a sign the individual is dissatisfied with his or her current situation and may be willing to return.

So what are the benefits of rehiring former employees? Nash says they "perform better, stay longer and integrate into teams faster, [due] to the relationships they've had and continue to have with our clients and with their colleagues; that brings a lot of value to our organization."

Sullivan cites even more. A company not only gains someone with a thorough understanding of its business and culture, he says, but it also frequently reaps the benefit of competitive intelligence and best practices acquired during their time away. And while conventional wisdom might suggest boomerang employees may be likely to leave again, Nash has little concern about creating a revolving door. In fact, he says, the opposite is true: Returning employees tend to stay longer than the average new hire.

Regrettable Losses

Of course, former employees aren't always desirable, considering the number of employees who leave due to bad performance or lack of cultural fit. One way to try and ensure rehires are favorable, says Carvin, is to focus on what she calls "regrettable losses," high-performers who left the company, much to management's dismay. Nobscot recently added a rebounding module to its WebExit online exit-interview-management software that gives supervisors the opportunity to flag those departing employees they consider strong rehire candidates. Those individuals are then asked one question not asked of those who aren't wanted back: "Would you be open to hearing about future opportunities within the organization?" A "yes" yields an automated note six weeks later.

"Around the time they might be feeling like, 'Oops! I think I made a mistake,' they are given the opportunity to tell the company they are open to new opportunities," says Carvin. "That then populates a report back to HR, letting them know which former employees [might come] back to the fold."

A similar approach is employed by DaVita. When someone is in the process of leaving that company, the supervisor inputs whether he or she is eligible for rehire. About a month later, those who are receive an e-card proclaiming, "You are always welcome here." They then have the option of clicking on a link to connect to the DaVita Alumni Group.

"Our recruiters know there's a good chance this will pay off for a role they will have open later, so they are priming the pump for a future opening," says Chipman.

Caution is always advisable, however. While boomerangs are a known entity, it's crucial that organizations abide by stringent criteria and due diligence when assessing whether rehiring someone is a smart business decision, says David Lewis, CEO at OperationsInc., a Norwalk, Conn.-based human resource consulting and outsourcing firm. He suggests hiring managers ask themselves, "If this person hadn't resigned, would they likely still be employed by the company today?"

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At KPMG, Raymond and her team talk to would-be rehires' former managers to learn what happened before they left. They also have frank discussions with the individuals about why they left, what they've been up to and why they feel they're ready to come back. If there was a specific barrier that prevented them from staying -- for example, a travel requirement -- Raymond seeks to ensure that won't be an issue moving forward.

Unfortunately, employers often are blinded by past successes and fail to see a boomerang employee for who they are today, says Millard. The result is a failed hire.

"When there's a rehire and it hasn't worked out, it's often because they were trying to re-create a magic that existed five years ago," says Millard. "Meanwhile, things have changed. People have changed. Their interests and qualifications have changed, and it's just not going to work out no matter how hard you try."

Employers also have a number of legal issues to consider when bringing boomerangs back. If a union exists in the organization, contractual clauses typically govern which employees are eligible for rehire, says Wayne Pinkerton, a partner with Fisher & Phillips, a Princeton, N.J.-based labor and employment law firm. Even in nonunion organizations, it is incumbent upon HR to ensure that rehiring decisions "are justified and researched," according to Pinkerton. Specifically, companies must be certain such decisions are based on merit, rather than age or gender. If an organization was discovered to be rehiring young, male employees over older, female workers, for example, it could potentially be setting itself up for a discrimination suit. As with any legal landmines, Pinkerton advises HR executives to consult with legal counsel to avoid running afoul of any laws or restrictions.

Rebound Reception

Another potential pitfall, says Carvin, is that employers often believe a former employee can hit the ground running without any retraining or re-orientation. Nothing could be further from the truth, says Sandy Gould, senior vice president of talent acquisition for Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo! Inc., where 14 percent of new hires are boomerangs. Each Yahoo! boomerang goes through new-hire orientation followed by a customized onboarding experience designed to address any knowledge or skills gaps and help them understand how the Yahoo! of today differs from the Yahoo! of yore.

During the company's interactive new-hire orientation, the discussion often turns to what the boomerangs in the group bring to Yahoo! Returning employees also are given the opportunity to share their perspective on why they chose to come back. According to Gould, the enthusiasm of the boomerangs in returning to "something they love" is "powerful and contagious" and speaks volumes to others -- both in the room and throughout the organization.

"It's a pretty loud statement, 'I'm coming back for more,' because it tells everyone this person had [a] positive experience at Yahoo! ...," says Gould. "Boomerangs super-charge inspiration and commitment."

Sullivan refers to boomerangs as "brown-grassers" because they help others in the organization see that the grass isn't necessarily greener elsewhere. If it were, why would they have returned? This often results in better retention rates across the board.

While boomerangs might be nervous about how they are going to be received by their former colleagues, reception of returning employees is generally positive, says Nash, who likens it to welcoming a star player back to the team. Naturally, there are exceptions, says Lewis, such as when a "problem child" is inadvertently brought back to the fold or when boomerang employees are found to be -- or even perceived to be -- receiving higher pay than they would had they never left.

KPMG is careful to ensure boomerang employees are not granted salary increases simply because they are coming back. If an individual is returning with an enhanced skill set or taking on additional responsibilities, they will be compensated appropriately, however. Likewise, Chipman stresses that DaVita's boomerangs "should not expect a windfall or a detriment to their salaries" if they are returning to the same or a similar role. Rather, they are offered a "fair and competitive wage -- which may be higher or lower than what they were making before -- based on market conditions for that role."

By all accounts, organizations are going to find themselves increasingly challenged to iron out such issues in the coming years. The shortage of skilled workers is already wreaking havoc on recruiting initiatives and Generation Y is expected to make a career out of job-hopping. That leaves employers with little choice but to look to boomerang employees.

"You're going to run out of people pretty quickly," says Lewis, "if you don't allow some of these people to come back."

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