What are the pros and potential cons of ‘boomerang employees’?

Andrew Mawson considers why businesses might think twice about hiring former staff and advises how to keep relationships positive if workers do decide to leave

Boomerang employees – workers who left a company but return – are on the rise. According to a recent study of 4,000 employees across six countries, including the UK, nearly 20 per cent of employees who left their job during the pandemic have returned to their old employer. Meanwhile, more than four in 10 who quit recently admit they were better off in their old job. 

The reason for this trend lies in an increasingly notable power shift from employer to employee over the past few years. The upheaval of the pandemic caused many people to reassess whether their job provided them with what they wanted, such as the ability to work from home, the right amount of flexibility during the week, adequate services and amenities in this new hybrid world, feeling valued by their employer, and more. As a result, the job market has become incredibly competitive, and businesses are needing to work harder than ever before to attract and retain talent. 

This means people are more willing to leave if you don’t give them what they want. However, as the phrase ‘boomerang employee’ suggests, it means they are also likely to return if they can’t find what they’re looking for elsewhere. 

So, should you welcome former employees back? What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing so? And, if you do, how can you ensure that their return is both as smooth as possible for them and as beneficial as possible for your organisation?

The pros 

Knowledge-based organisations are the accumulative brain power of their people. The retained knowledge, skills, energy and effectiveness of everyone’s brain is what your company is paying for. So, when one employee leaves, they take their knowledge of your business, its customers, processes, culture and the ‘way things are done around here’ with them and your organisation is poorer for it. 

What’s more, you will have invested a great deal of time and money into ensuring that they were properly trained and developed. Discounting these people, especially if you’re in a highly specialised field and during these times of significant skills shortages, will mean you’re shooting your business in the foot by narrowing the search. 

It’s also important to remember that everyone wants different things from a job and will have their own reasons for leaving, such as monetary drivers and changes to personal circumstances. Take a young person as an example. Perhaps they have just graduated from university and are full of ambition and keen to learn and develop. But maybe what they want and what you’re prepared to give them at this point in their career don’t match, so they leave. If you keep that relationship warm, they could return a few years down the line with more experience and better developed skills, ultimately proving to be a huge asset to your organisation.  

The cons 

So, it pays to keep an open mind about former employees, but you must also be aware of the risks. Don’t just rehire them because it’s the safe option. Why did they leave in the first place? During their first spell at your organisation, were they a toxic influence?

If that’s the case, hiring the employee a second time might cause disruption to the team and upset the balance you’ve achieved, impacting business performance. Brushing past behaviours under the carpet will not magically make them a new person. 

As a returning employee, they may also have much higher expectations than before. The fact that they understand the business and its culture well could become a disadvantage. You need to help them understand they are an equal member of the team and how your business priorities may have changed in the intervening months or years. 

Keeping relationships warm 

How do you keep relationships with former employees warm? The first thing to consider is maintaining regular communication with them on social media platforms such as LinkedIn and your industry’s networking events. You must keep an eye on what they’re doing, congratulate them on their successes and don’t forget to include them in your important company or professional updates. 

Another, more formal, solution is to develop an alumni network for former team members. The big accountancy firms make very good use of their own alumni networks. Often, their people move into in-house roles at large, significant companies and then return years later with highly developed skills and knowledge.

One approach is to share content with your alumni network. But it’s also a good idea to include them in research and professional development initiatives where you can. 

Managing the return 

Although you don’t need to invest as much time and money in training and developing returning employees, it’s important not to neglect the onboarding process. Yes, the process might be quicker, but this is your opportunity to explain how things may have changed and the expectations you have for their return. 

This is especially true for the over 50s, an age cohort re-entering the workforce in record numbers. It might have been 10-20 years since they last worked at your company so you need to manage the transition carefully – what do they need now at this stage in their lives, and can your work models and environments deliver that for them? 

Ultimately, bringing in new people is critical to your organisation’s development, but there are always those few employees who you wish never left. 

Andrew Mawson is managing director of Advanced Workplace Associates