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Viewpoint: Leave the Door Open for Employees to Return to Your Organization

A group of business people holding up a welcome back sign.

Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with Harvard Business Review to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies.

Good companies are always on the lookout for good talent. They also recognize that every former employee is a potential future customer, business partner, referral source — and even a potential future employee. Returning employees, also known as "boomerang employees," are an important part of the talent pipeline. This is particularly true in times when there are talent shortages, as well as in sectors experiencing a surge in demand driving a shortfall in available talent, such as health care.

To be sure, you'll still need to properly screen boomerang employees. Nevertheless, there are several steps involved in cultivating these prospective candidates. Inspired by companies that have welcomed former employees back, the following strategies can help you create clear and compelling pathways that will make it easier for boomerang employees to return to your organization.

Destigmatize and normalize leaving the organization.

There are organizations that regard an employee's departure as a betrayal, which can lead those who remain to view them negatively. This attitude is neither supportive nor inviting to an individual who might otherwise consider returning one day and can breed ill will with a departing employee. Destigmatizing departures and viewing them as a normal part of employees' career progressions is the first step in leaving the door open for them to return someday.

Normalizing leaving the organization starts at the beginning of the talent pipeline. Jen Andrasko, vice president and global head of alumni at Bain & Company (and a boomerang employee herself), shared: "The way that we think about our alumni at Bain is that they are an invaluable part of the Bain ecosystem in creating an engaged promoter base. We have this life cycle-based approach to alumni engagement, so it actually has to start at recruitment. You need to be talking about your alumni and their successes and the work that they're doing out in the world when you are meeting with recruits, because they are your talent brand in the marketplace."

Doing this not only destigmatizes departing the company, but also shows that it's perfectly normal and even expected that many who join will leave at some point.

Andrasko also shared that ongoing career conversations throughout the employee journey, not just at departure, help normalize leaving the organization. Each Bain employee has a career advisor, who discusses alumni and what they're doing now in a career development context, in addition to highlighting boomerang employees to demonstrate that it's also common for people to return.

Provide a great employee experience.

Another part of creating a pathway for former employees to return is to ensure that they have a positive employee experience so that they would want to come back. Good talent managers view employees as consumers: If they don't have a positive experience, they likely won't even consider returning as an option.

For example, after leaving a company where I worked for a few years before pursuing another opportunity overseas, I interviewed to go back in a different capacity upon returning to the U.S. While the company's pay, perks and status were top notch and made me initially interested in the opportunity to return, being back in their offices for interviews quickly reminded me of the harsh culture, and I decided not to pursue it further.

Create a good off-boarding experience.

According to Gallup, employees who have a positive exit experience are 2.9 times more likely to recommend that organization to others. At Bain, where they focus specifically on measuring how supported individuals feel at departure, that number is even higher. Andrasko shared, "Ensuring that departing employees leave well, meaning that they feel supported at departure, results in them being five times more likely to be promoters of the firm." One might infer that these promoters would also be more likely to return themselves.

This data reflects the significant investment that Bain makes in its departing employees. Andrasko added that, "In nearly all of our offices, we have a departure partner…whose remit is to ensure that the departure process goes smoothly," and they facilitate departing employees' access to the various resources the firm offers them. For example, internal professionals within Bain Career Advisory provide career coaching and planning throughout the employee journey to support individual career aspirations. During departure, they help departing "Bainies" connect to alumni in their fields of interest and job opportunities at sought-after organizations, in addition to giving them access to external career coaches.

Be explicit that the door is open.

Before an employee's last day, plant the seed that the door is open, either if things don't work out in their new job or after they gain further experience elsewhere. When Andrasko told her former boss she was leaving Bain for a new opportunity, she said, "He was nothing but supportive. And he very candidly said, 'We, of course, don't want you to leave. We would love you to stay. And I understand why you need to go…We're here to support you. And if — and when — you want to return to Bain, there's always a home here for you.'" He then went a step further to ask how he could support her to be successful in her new role.

Brooke-Lynn Howard, group strategy director and boomerang employee at advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy, also recommended being very clear with people that the door is open if they do want to ever come back. "I don't think that many companies are explicit about that," she said. "And I have had conversations with people who have maybe had second thoughts about having made a move but weren't sure that they could return…and so were afraid to reach out. Knowing that the door is open would be really helpful."

Build a robust alumni program that adds value.

Alumni programs can be powerful drivers of brand advocacy, business development and talent management. Yet, a Gallup study showed that only 12% of former employees strongly agree that they're a part of their prior employer's alumni network. This is by far one of the biggest areas of untapped opportunity. Many organizations have no alumni function, whereas others may be in the early stages of developing theirs — for example, with a LinkedIn group or email newsletter that share periodic company updates or job postings.

Other organizations offer robust programming for former employees that provides opportunities for meaningful, ongoing engagement with both the organization and fellow alumni, thereby strengthening their connection to the company and maintaining an ongoing relationship.

In addition to an alumni database, which former employees can access for networking purposes, Bain has an alumni partner in each office whose job is to communicate with the local alumni community, implement the local office alumni strategy and celebrate departures and highlight alumni in local office events.

The firm also has "In the Know," a monthly knowledge series for alumni to hear from thought leaders at Bain on topics such as DEI, ESG and the future of work, and learn how they can bring those practices to their own companies. There are also networking opportunities, including the firm's CXO forums for C-level alumni. And this year, the firm is rolling out digital industry and functional networking groups and will be doing quarterly career corner office hours for alumni to learn about new opportunities at the company and how it has evolved since they left.

Stay in touch.

Make sure you get departing employees' contact information and ask them to opt in to future communications. Bain sends out a monthly alumni communication sharing firm and people news and has recently added "boomerang highlights."

Another important facet of staying in touch when an employee leaves Bain is the "guardian" relationship. A guardian is a current employee whom the departing employee selects who is responsible for staying in contact and building a long-term relationship with them. Andrasko shared, "If we've done a good job of staying connected to you and there is someone with whom you have personal contact that you feel is invested in you, we're more likely to be successful in supporting you in the ways that you need." Guardians will typically check in with their alumni a few times a year, particularly if there are office-specific campaigns for rejoining opportunities.

Understanding the best way to stay in touch is important as well. CommonSpirit Health, which just rehired 2,000 employees in the first half of their current fiscal year (out of a total employee base of 150,000), is relying on text outreach either in addition to or in lieu of email. Wanda Cole-Frieman, the company's senior vice president of talent acquisition, said, "We've moved to doing a lot of text recruiting lately. Especially for our clinical areas. A lot of those employees and former employees are on the floor. So they're not sitting in front of a laptop…we'll initially start there and then pick up the conversation."

Stay organized.

In addition to staying in touch, it's important to keep track of alumni data and stay organized, typically through some type of CRM or applicant tracking system.

Nicole Carter, director of talent acquisition at U.S. Venture, shared that the company uses an internal CRM system where they can keep notes about departing employees for recruitment purposes. She gave the example of an individual who recently gave notice because they wanted to work in the nonprofit sector. Carter highlighted the work U.S. Venture's community engagement team did with nonprofits and shared with the departing employee, "Maybe we don't have an opening right now, but keep that in mind. If this is where your heart's leading you, what can we do as an organization to stay connected to you, get you involved in some of our nonprofit events that are happening over the next year so that I get you in front of the right people in case we have an opportunity become available?" She then shared that she'd be adding this information to the CRM system and would add her to a list for community engagement opportunities. She continued, "And then, as soon as I have a position become available, I can pull up that list and be like, 'Oh, yeah! I remember her.'"

Stay flexible.

Bain's alumni survey asks respondents to specify interest in full-time, part-time, contract or partnership opportunities, offering many ways to potentially come back to the firm. Cole-Frieman shared that CommonSpirit's "Boomerang campaign" is looking for talent in all capacities as well, from per-diem work to part-time or full-time positions. She said, "Be open and flexible because I think, sometimes, someone may have been a full-time employee, but they don't want to come back in that capacity. Just be open to exploring how you can be flexible to make it work. I think flexibility is key." She said that returning health care workers, including retirees and those who decided to take a break, might start with a per-diem shift or two and then ultimately convert to part-time or full-time.

Leaving an organization doesn't have to be seen as the end of the relationship with a former employee. It's often a natural evolution of an employee's career in the context of a larger economy of talent, which could potentially lead them back to your company at some point. Using the strategies above, you can continue to cultivate the relationship and leave the door open, making it easier for former employees to return and contribute even more to your organization.

Rebecca Zucker is an executive coach and a founding partner at Next Step Partners, a leadership development firm. Her clients have included Amazon, Clorox, Morrison Foerster, Norwest Venture Partners, The James Irvine Foundation and high-growth technology companies like DocuSign and Dropbox. 

This article is reprinted from Harvard Business Review with permission. ©2022. All rights reserved.


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