​Early last year, data scientist Chad Stripling decided he was ready for a change. 

Since late 2018, he had held rewarding roles at two major national retailers, but thoughts about his former employer’s culture kept tugging at the back of his mind.

So three and a half years after leaving, he returned to 84.51°, a Cincinnati-based data science and insights company owned by supermarket chain Kroger.

“The culture at 84.51° is very unique,” Stripling says. “The employees are extremely collaborative, and the passion they have for continued learning and development helps spur innovation and career ­advancement opportunities. And both Kroger and 84.51°’s investments in data, technology and science are unmatched in my experience.”

Stripling, who had worked as a data scientist at 84.51° from 2015 to 2018, jumped at the chance to apply when he saw a job posting for a data science and cloud analytics director role, a position he felt matched his skill set and career aspirations. In February 2022, he rejoined the organization in the new position.

Stripling is part of a growing movement of boomerang employees—workers who leave a company only to return down the road. That’s not a new phenomenon, of course, but boomerang employees are enjoying something of a renaissance. A 2023 global Visier Insights Report found that almost 30 percent of external hires between 2020 and early 2022 were actually rehires.

Much of this recent boomeranging activity is in response to the seismic changes that the pandemic brought to the world of work and life in general. Many people have re-evaluated their work life in recent years, with some deciding to seek out more flexibility, better pay or new industries. Others left their jobs because of child care struggles or burnout. Between April and August of 2021, there were a staggering 20 million resignations. Screen Shot 2023-09-05 at 11531 PM.png

However, research shows that many who voluntarily left their jobs now regret it. A 2022 UKG survey of 4,000 employees in six countries found that 43 percent of the people who quit during the pandemic say they were better off at their old jobs.

That reality poses an opportunity for HR departments to ramp up their rehiring efforts. Bringing back a former employee can be a win-win for employers and employees, under the right conditions. 

“These returning employees may have new skills, knowledge and expertise to share that they acquired during their time away,” says Sandra Moran, chief customer experience and marketing officer at Livonia, Mich.-based WorkForce Software, a management solutions company with 630 employees. “Many rehired employees also experience a sense of loyalty and gratitude that can positively impact the company and other team members.”

Who’s Returning? 

Workers of all types and stripes can become boomerang employees, but recent research paints a picture of who is more likely to return to their former workplace, and how. Typically, boomerang employees are lured back by higher-ranking positions with better pay than what they received previously. Visier’s research, which analyzed 15 million employee records at 15,000 companies globally, shows that 44 percent of boomerang employees return as managers, compared with 26 percent who return as individual contributors. Boomerang employees also earn an average of 25 percent more in pay when they return. 

The sweet spot for a former employee to return is after they’ve been away for 13 months. After 16 months, the likelihood of an employee returning begins to drop off. More than one-quarter of those who return are high-performing employees, as determined by their performance ratings.

 Common reasons employees return, the UKG survey found, are that the new job didn’t meet their expectations; they miss their former co-workers, workplace culture or customers; or they have the ability to return to a higher-level job at greater pay. Surprisingly, 1 in 5 workers who quit their job post-pandemic actually took a pay cut in their new role.Screen Shot 2023-09-05 at 11549 PM.png

“Many employees discover they were happier or more fulfilled on their former team. Or in some cases, decisions might be fueled by benefits, such as flexible work arrangements, commute time and advancement opportunities,” says Jeffrey Oliver, SHRM-CP, head of people for Long Beach, Calif.-based myPlace Health, an integrated care delivery organization for older adults. 

Boomerang employees also tend to maintain connections with their past workplace through contact with former co-workers or bosses, or as a member of the organization’s alumni network. 

That was the case for Tori Rochlen, SHRM-CP, who in April returned to SkillCycle, a New York City-based education technology company with 26 remote employees, to become director of learning success and enablement. Rochlen had left the company in May 2022 to earn her coaching certification.

“The company fully supported my decision to pause working full time in order to follow a passion, which meant furthering my education,” Rochlen says. “They financially sponsored my education/certification course and sponsored coaching sessions to help support me on my journey. This was more than I could have ever expected.”

As Rochlen got closer to earning her certification, she reached out to company leaders, including Rebecca Taylor, SkillCycle’s co-founder and chief customer officer, about becoming a freelance coach for the organization. 

Once Rochlen was back in the fold, SkillCycle asked her to take on some short-term project work that “specifically needed the perspective of someone who understood coaching and HR equally,” Taylor says. The short-term project evolved into a full-time role, and considering that Rochlen was already familiar with SkillCycle’s business and had the right skill set, it made sense to offer her the job, Taylor says.

For Rochlen, temporarily stepping away from full-time work provided her with “valuable time to reflect and explore my professional next steps and what I wanted out of an employment opportunity,” she says. “This helped me to be really clear with my goals.” 

The Pros and Cons

Identifying the upside to rehiring a high-performing employee who left on good terms isn’t hard. Boomerang employees have a leg up on new hires in many ways. Even if they’re taking on a new role, they already know the company’s processes, technologies and lingo, and require “less ramp-up time and training to get to fully productive,” Oliver says.

Boomerang employees also already know the organization’s culture, something that can be especially critical for startups like SkillCycle, where change is constant and can be challenging for “employees who don’t know what they’re getting into or how they will react to that type of environment,” Taylor says.

Rehiring a former employee is also less expensive and can result in better outcomes. Cornell University researchers in 2020 found that boomerang employees often outperform new hires. That’s especially true at organizations where institutional knowledge and cross-­departmental collaboration is necessary for success. Screen Shot 2023-09-05 at 11531 PM.png

There are, however, some pitfalls to consider in rehiring a past employee—many of which can be avoided through a careful vetting process. Some boomerang ­employees may rest too heavily on past performance or struggle to adapt to changes made while they were gone, Moran says. It’s also important to ensure that the person isn’t returning for the wrong reasons and that the company is asking them back for the right reasons. For example, the fact that former employees already know the “lay of the land” isn’t a good enough reason to rehire them, says Moran.

“It’s important to drill down as much as you can on the real reason the person wants to return,” Oliver adds. “What did they expect from the organization that they just left that didn’t happen? And why did they leave your organization the first time around?” 

For example, boomerang employees turned over at a higher rate than other employees—more than twice as much as employees promoted internally, according to research published in the Harvard Business Review in 2021.

Oliver recommends reviewing the employee’s exit interview or past ­performance reports to uncover areas of discontent or shortcomings. That way, HR can see if the reasons they left still remain—potentially causing them to become disillusioned—or if the new opportunity or skills the employee has gained have solved the issue.

Keep the Door Open

While the Great Resignation may be in the rearview mirror, hiring is still a struggle for many companies. In June 2023, there were 9.6 million job openings, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. No surprise, then, that many companies are treating rehiring as another arm of their talent acquisition strategy, Moran says. 

The chance to woo back a former top employee is alluring. And that’s why organizations that don’t have a formal rehiring program should start one now, Oliver advises. 

“To boost rehire efforts, you have to plan,” he says. “Just like with any other HR strategy, document the process, the expectations and the KPIs [key performance indicators] that you’ll track to measure your results.”

Certain actions can be especially helpful when bringing former employees back on board:

Make offboarding as important as onboarding. When an employee is leaving, it’s smart to take the opportunity to part ways on the best possible terms.

“Celebrating the next chapter of that employee’s career and wishing them well goes a long way in solidifying positive relations,” says Rebecca Edwards, SHRM-SCP, owner and principal consultant of Infinite HR of Charlotte in Charlotte, N.C. 

Instead of treating departing employees as if they’ll be gone forever, companies can stress that the door is always open if they want to return.

“If you have a high performer leaving, ask if you can call and check in on them in 30 days and see how they’re doing in their new role,” ­Oliver says. “Or ask if you can contact them if you have an opening that matches their aspirations.”

Create an alumni network. Alumni networks on platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Slack can be powerful recruiting tools, if done right. 

Not only can they connect a company with a former employee who is just looking for the right reason to ­return, but former employees are also a great group to query for candidate referrals. In fact, some companies ­include former employees in their paid employee referral program. 

To make the most of an alumni network, regularly update its page with company and alumni news and job openings, and encourage participation by liking or commenting on posts and asking questions, Edwards says. 

“Those are all important keys in retaining the connection,” she adds.

Reach out directly. Organizations shouldn’t wait to hear from a former employee—they should make a point of checking in with past employees who have indicated they’d be receptive to the outreach, Oliver says. That’s especially true when company leaders have an open role they think would be a great fit for a past employee.

“One of the best pipelines you can have for talent is your former employee pool, and you should not wait for them to reapply if you want them to return,” Oliver says. “Reach out, engage with them and ask them to consider returning. Sometimes that’s all it takes.” 

Of the people who quit their job during the pandemic but haven’t returned to their former workplace, 41 percent said they would consider it if it were an option, the UKG ­s­urvey found.

Review compensation regularly. Employees often leave for better-­paying jobs. That’s why it’s important for companies to regularly ensure that their compensation is competitive. For example, Oliver recalls his volunteer work with an organization in a high-turnover industry. Many of the company’s employees left for more money, but they still felt connected to their former employer’s mission and purpose.

“In time, the organization was able to adjust compensation packages and call former employees to share that news, inviting them to return,” he says, adding that many former employees were receptive. “This highlights the importance of regularly reviewing your company’s compensation strategy and ensuring people don’t need to leave and come back for more money. Imagine as an employer not losing that 25 percent of top performers to begin with!” 

Invest in managers. As the saying goes, “People don’t leave companies; they leave managers.” While that’s not universally true, there’s no doubt that managers make a significant difference in employee retention. 

Good managers not only can help prevent employees from leaving, they can also play a role in bringing them back. 

Compared with all people who had quit a job, boomerang employees were more likely to say they had a manager who fostered an environment where communicating frustrations was possible, made an effort to keep them and conducted at least one stay interview, the UKG survey found.

At the end of the day, having former employees who are willing—and even excited—about returning to an organization is a sign of a positive company culture and can help organizations struggling to attract top talent in a tight labor market.

“Someone wanting to return can be a good indicator that your company is doing something right,” ­Oliver says, “and hopefully better than the competitor.”  

Kate Rockwood is a freelance writer based in Chicago. Images by Monkey Business Images, PeskyMonkey/ISTOCK and dkovalenko, Ivonne Wierink/Shutterstock.

How Employers Can Keep Returning Employees Happy

Rehiring a former employee is certainly less work than onboarding a brand-new one, but it’s important for company leaders not to be lax about maintaining positive relationships with boomerang employees. Here are three ways to help ensure that returning employees stay—at least for a while—the second time around.

Provide a thorough onboarding experience. It can be tempting to give a boomerang employee short shrift in the onboarding department, especially if they haven’t been gone for long. But that’s a mistake. 

“Onboarding and orientation for a rehire should be just as thorough and inclusive as if they were joining the organization for the first time,” says Jeffrey Oliver, SHRM-CP, head of people for myPlace Health, an integrated care delivery organization for older adults based in Long Beach, Calif. “Even though they have been there, done that, the company and the rehire have an obligation to ensure they are up-to-date on the latest training, expectations and business processes.” 

Have a performance plan. Performance measures for returning employees shouldn’t differ from those of current staff, says Rebecca Edwards, SHRM-SCP, owner and principal consultant of Infinite HR of Charlotte, an HR consulting firm in Charlotte, N.C. In other words, they shouldn’t be held to higher or lower standards just because they’ve been there before. 

However, there may be unique areas where boomerang employees can struggle.

“Pay close attention to addressing any issues with adjusting to changes, re-establishing relationships or failure to demonstrate ongoing commitment,” says Sandra Moran, chief customer experience and marketing officer at Livonia, Mich.-based WorkForce Software, a management solutions ­company. “By evaluating performance and observing behavior patterns, employers can gain insights into the success of rehiring initiatives and assess the practice of rehiring former employees.”

Schedule regular check-ins. Just as with any other employee, it’s important for managers to regularly check in with boomerang employees, including having deeper conversations about “why they left, why they returned and how they are currently feeling about their decision to return,” Oliver says. —K.R.


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