Best Practices for Re-Engaging Former Employees

By Lin Grensing-Pophal January 12, 2023
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​As many employers continue to face a tight labor market and a shortage of skilled labor, some are considering re-engaging former employees. Many former employees discover that the grass wasn't actually greener at another employer, and they may be ready to return to their former organization, either in their previous position or an elevated one. 

Sebastian, an employee at South Jordan, Utah-based talent experience platform HireVue, is a good example. Sebastian was eager to learn new skills in a different position that wasn't available at HireVue at the time, said Amanda Hahn, HireVue's chief marketing officer. So, he took another role at a new company, which provided priceless experience. Ultimately, though, he was unsatisfied with the culture.

"When the time was right and a new position became available with HireVue, he immediately threw his hat in the ring and has been with us ever since," Hahn said.

A UKG study shows that 43 percent of people who quit their jobs during the pandemic now admit that they were better off in their old job. Some companies, though, are hesitant to rehire employees who have left. In reality, there are some significant benefits for companies that recognize what returning employees may offer and are proactive about laying the foundation for their return.

Benefits of 'Boomerang' Employees

Former employees who return to a company are referred to as "boomerang" employees, and they offer some key benefits, said Danielle McMahan, chief people and business operations officer for Wiley, a publishing company based in Hoboken, N.J.

Boomerang employees can help strengthen a company's culture, she said. "They often serve as brand champions for organizations and can offer valuable historical perspective and insight."

They also offer economic benefits, McMahan said. "They can often onboard faster, accelerating the time they start making meaningful impacts on productivity," she noted.

Recognizing these benefits, companies can be more proactive about engaging these employees.

Tami Simon is a corporate consulting leader and senior vice president with Segal, a leading benefits and HR consulting firm headquartered in New York City. Simon recommended reviewing voluntary separation data regularly to spot trends in why people are leaving. "There may be increased burnout in a particular department or under a specific manager," she said. Staying on top of the data can help companies make necessary adjustments before employees decide to leave.

"The best practice for filling open roles with returning employees starts long before a person ever leaves," Hahn said. Strong performance management is critical, she added. "Solid documentation about an employee's performance and their skills will help you determine if they are a good candidate to boomerang back into the organization once they resurface."

Remain Positive

The way hiring managers and others respond to an employee's resignation and remaining days or weeks with the company before leaving for another opportunity are critical for setting the stage for their potential return at some future point in time.

Create the most positive offboarding experience possible, Simon recommended. "Develop a safe place for workers to be authentic about why they are leaving. Express to the existing employee that you support their career and want what is best for their journey but would still welcome them back with open arms," she said.

Don't leave offboarding to chance. Simon suggested training managers to make sure employees leave feeling good about the company. There's research to back up the importance of doing this.

Abbie Shipp is a scholar at The Academy of Management and chair of the Management and Leadership Department at the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. Shipp's research suggests that the most effective tactic for recruiting someone back to the organization is a positive relationship with their prior manager. Be proactive in having managers reach out to former employees, she suggested. "If a manager has been saying for years, 'We'd love to have you back,' it will seem more authentic and inviting than radio silence followed by a sudden invitation to return."

Being intentional about the entire offboarding process is also important, McMahan said. She noted that research from Wiley Edge, Wiley's talent development solution, "shows 71 percent of businesses do not have an offboarding process in place designed to enable employees to leave on good terms." Being intentional helps to ensure that departing employees know that the door is open for their potential return.

Stay in Touch

Once they're gone, though, it's important to stay in touch. "We like to say 'Once a Vuer, always a Vuer,' and it's with that ethos that we maintain great relationships with our alumni network," Hahn said.

Simon suggested hosting a monthly breakfast for former employees to connect and setting up networks for former employees.

It's important to keep former employees engaged in a number of ways, said Jill Chapman, SHRM-SCP, director of early talent programs at Insperity, an HR service provider based in Houston. "You may invite them back to focus groups, ask them to participate in think tanks and even invite them to participate in celebrations for former co-workers, such as retirement parties."

Doing this, Chapman said, shows how much these former employees are valued and keeps them connected to the organization.

Employers should distinguish which employees they are open to rehiring and which ones they may not be. Having rehire policies helps make this distinction, Chapman said. "If the organization does not have a rehire policy in place, there is the potential for the rehire of employees who were not the best fit for the company or who left on bad terms," she cautioned.

Manage Expectations

While many former employees may be great candidates for open positions, that doesn't mean they will automatically get the job. Make that clear during the hiring process to help manage expectations.

And, if they don't get the job, continue to stay in touch and keep the door open. There may be other roles that might be a good fit in the future.

For when former employees do return, here are some do's and don'ts from Jared Pope, founder and CEO of Work Shield, a platform for managing reporting and investigations based in Dallas:

  • Do remember that the returning employee already has in-house experience with your company but will need to be updated on any new features, processes or other changes.
  • Do welcome the returning employee and make them feel included regardless of the reason they left in the first place.
  • Do encourage the returning employee to share new ideas or suggestions from their diverse experience outside of their role at your company.
  • Do not bring up the returning employee's decision to leave your company in a negative tone. Instead, view their return as a "win back."
  • Do not hold the returning employee to a higher or different standard than other new employees in the same or similar role.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SHRM-SCP, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience.

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