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Staffing Management: When the Grass Wasn’t Greener

John Pulley  7/1/2006
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Vol.2, No. 3

Keep in touch with former employees who left your company for greener pastures elsewhere. They might consider returningand heres why you might want to let them.

During the previous era of cradle-to-grave employment, workers who left a company were often considered traitors or failures and were marked for life by the company as damaged goods. The prevailing attitude held by managers toward departing employees was “good riddance.”

“There was a notion that if someone was dissatisfied enough to leave, the ill will was a poison that would create waves of discontent,” says Catherine D. Fyock, a Crestwood, Ky., employment strategist.

Times have changed. Tightening labor markets, retiring baby boomers and a shortage of skilled workers in many sectors of the economy have forced companies to reassess anachronistic attitudes. And some of them are coming to the conclusion that yesterday’s traitors can be today’s treasures.

Progressive firms, eager to recapture lost talent, are keeping in touch with lapsed employees through alumni networks. They are christening rehires as “comeback kids” and holding “boomerang ceremonies” to celebrate the return of valued workers.

The types of organizations seeking to rehire former workers range from governmental departments and agencies (for example, the U.S. Army has a long track record of retaining skilled soldiers through the Army Reserve), to consulting groups and health care organizations. “Hospitals have been on the forefront of strategies to staff more creatively,” Fyock says.

Among laid-off workers, more than one in 10 who lost a job in a downsizing move was rehired by the same employer in 2005, according to results of a survey released in March by Right Management Consultants, a career transition and organizational consulting firm in Philadelphia. The sampling of 14,000 displaced workers from more than 4,900 organizations throughout North America found that 13 percent of the employees were later rehired by their former employers.

“This marks a significant shift in employer attitudes toward [the] rehiring [of] laid-off workers,” notes Eileen Javers, the global leader for Right Management’s Center of Excellence for Relocation Transition Services. “Due to the shortage of talent, especially at the managerial and executive levels, employers are more willing to rehire displaced employees because of their familiarity with … [their previous] job[s] and with the organization.”

Another Right Management survey, conducted in 2005, found that 54 percent of employers were rehiring employees who had been displaced by earlier downsizings.

“The former attitude in corporate America—that once an employer and employee parted paths, their history was concluded forever—is shifting,” Javers says.

Not everyone has caught the boomerang bug, however. The 2005 Right Management survey also found that 46 percent of employers responding to the survey say they rarely hire back former employees.

“Some companies still have policies against rehiring former employees,” agrees Leigh Branham, an employment consultant and author of Keeping the People Who Keep You in Business: 24 Ways to Hang On to Your Most Valuable Talent (AMA, 2000). “We can’t afford to have that attitude anymore. We’re in a war for talent.”

Employers Are Realizing the Investment

Several factors are driving businesses to embrace former employees, says Bruce Tulgan, the founder of RainmakerThinking Inc., a management-training firm based in New Haven, Conn.:

  • There has been a fundamental shift in employer-employee relations, away from the old-fashioned, long-term, hierarchical model and toward a new short-term transactional model. In this environment, employers are more likely to “forgive” employees who leave voluntarily and to keep the door open if they want to return.
  • Employers have come to realize that, having invested in employee recruitment and training, they have a powerful interest in maximizing the return on their investment, even if the relationship was interrupted for a time.
  • Employers are eager to rehire former employers to capture the value of training that has been provided by other companies.
  • Returning former employees, after learning that the grass isn’t much greener elsewhere, are likely to have high rates of retention.
  • Industries that are dealing with acute staffing shortages are eager to overlook so-called “resume taboos” that in the past would have been deal-killers.

“Some employers, either through policy or through prevailing practices, are still stuck in the mind-set of ‘You are either [one of] us or [one of] them. And, once you leave, you are [one of] them.’ But more and more employers are getting rid of the ‘burned-bridge[s]’ mentality and actively looking at former employees for rehiring,” Tulgan says. “More employers are realizing that they need to look at former employees as a very valuable recruiting pool.”

Like other urban law-enforcement agencies, the Louisville, Ky., Metropolitan Police Department struggles to hire promising new employees with a passion for police work. At any given time, the department has up to 80 open positions to fill.

This spring, the department took the unusual step of partially filling the gap by rehiring 13 retirees. These former employees knew the ropes—after often having put in 20 or more years on the force—and became bored in retirement, so they were eager to get back to work and reconnect with former colleagues.

“By focusing on our retirees, we were able to tap into those people who have this work in their blood,” states Cheryl Wagner, the department’s human resources director, according to a synopsis of the department’s hiring initiative prepared by Fyock, the employment strategist. She says the workforces of many older, more traditional workplaces are aging rapidly.

The companies that are most likely to welcome back former employees are those that are less seniority-based, less old-fashioned, less clique-oriented and less feudalistic, notes Tulgan. Also open to rehiring are companies in industries experiencing a shortage of skilled workers, such as health care, accounting and engineering, and companies in industries prone to seasonal hiring, such as the retail, restaurant and camp sectors.

“Older workers are more likely to resent people being able to leave, explore and [who] still get to come back and be ‘part of the family,’ ” Tulgan says. “Younger, less-experienced employees are much more likely to leave a job in the early stages. ... These are the people companies should stay in touch with so that, once they’ve checked out the grass on the other side and found out it isn’t any greener, they might come back and … [join an employee pool with] one of the highest retention [rates].”

Networking Lures People Back

Employees return to former employers often after a period of several years. Eager to lure workers back into the fold, companies are using high- and low-tech means of staying in touch with absent workers. For example, Booz Allen Hamilton, a consulting firm headquartered in McLean, Va., uses an online alumni network and alumni events to stay close to former employees.

“It keeps that connection warm,” says Jerrod Wheeler, an associate of the firm and manager of Booz Allen’s ComeBack Kids program. Created in 2001, the program to recruit former employees produced immediate results. In the first few years of its existence, ComeBack Kids accounted for 8.5 percent of the firm’s hires.

The company recognized the need for such a program as the dot-com boom was falling apart. Managers saw a lot of people who wanted to return to workplaces that were more stable.

“We saw people who wanted to come back to the firm,” Wheeler says. “They knew us and the culture, and we knew them and their talent. They could hit the ground running. It becomes a real win-win all around.”

One employee returned to Booz Allen after an absence of 20 years, but most rehires have been away for three to five years before coming back, estimates Wheeler. “We start talking to them at 28 months,” he says. “It’s not a hard sell.”

HR experts advise employers to take a deliberate approach to welcoming back boomerang employees. Establish a definite rehiring policy. Determine who is eligible and what would disqualify someone from returning. Some companies require departing employees’ supervisors—and not HR—to determine whether the employees are eligible for rehire.

“The policy of [asking for a] … supervisor check off is really a good idea,” Fyock says.

Companies should also consider re-entry issues for returning workers. Louisville’s police department found that retirees who returned to the force didn’t require a full training program, but they did need to be evaluated and reoriented to the workplace.

Employers also need to take care not to alienate employees who haven’t left, employment specialists note. It is easy to give the impression, for example, that leaving and coming back is a good way to get promoted. Employers should try not to send the wrong message.

“Be thoughtful about how you bring people back,” Wheeler says. “Recognize your culture and how this could impact it.”

John Pulley is a freelance journalist based in the Washington, D.C., area.

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