In a tight labor market, don't overlook boomerang employees

April 7, 2022 - 20 min read

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What is a boomerang employee?

Why do employees boomerang?

Pros and cons of hiring a boomerang employee

How to interview a boomerang employee

How to encourage the boomerang effect

Onboarding a boomerang employee

A few years ago, when I was in a new hire orientation at a previous company, one new colleague introduced himself as a boomerang employee.

“Yeah, I’m a boomerang," he said with a knowing smile at all the fresh-faced new employees. "I worked here when it was a startup. I left to get some industry experience, and now I’m excited to be back.” 

While that employee onboarding was the first time I had heard the term “boomerang employee,” the phenomena is more common than you may realize. In a recent US and UK survey, 75% of respondents said they’d be interested in maintaining contact with their previous employer.

We often think of leaving an employer, or especially a specific manager, as something final. Sometimes, it's even fraught with conflict or emotion. The reality is that modern careers have a lot of twists and turns.

Sometimes, the grass isn’t greener on the other side. Amid the Great Resignation (or Reshuffling, take your pick), a talent trend is emerging: hiring boomerang employees. The rationale? It’s a warm connection. They’re a known quantity. They already know the organization. 

In a tight market for talent, a pendulum swing is coming back toward employers — and companies need to be prepared

Find out how you can encourage the boomerang effect — and how boomerang workers can be beneficial for your business. 

What is a boomerang employee?

Let’s understand what it means to boomerang. 

Boomerang employees return to an employer after some time, whether that’s six months or six years. They often don’t return to the same team or function or role type they were in previously. Boomerang employees are becoming more and more common. And truthfully, there’s still data and research to be done on this topic. 

However, a survey by the Workforce Institute and Workplace Trends reported interesting findings. Here’s what survey respondents reported: 

  • Workers are open to the conversation. While 15% of workers had boomeranged to a former employer, 40% said they would consider going back to a company where they previously worked. 
  • Generations responded differently in response to being a boomerang. Nearly half of millennial survey respondents would consider returning to a former employer. That’s compared to 33% of Gen Xers and 29% of baby boomers. 
  • Boomeranging is widespread across industries. In the past five years, 85% of HR professionals have received applications from former employees.
  • Organizations don’t quite know what to do with boomerang employees. In fact, 80% of boomerangers say former employers don’t have a strategy in place for when they return. Further, 64% of those who boomerang say there’s no strategy for maintaining a relationship between alumni and the company. 

Why do employees boomerang? 

Like any decision to leave or come back to a job, it varies. Employees have unique circumstances that could cause them to boomerang. No one situation is the same. 

Here are ten reasons why employees may boomerang: 

  • They feel connected to the company culture and people 
  • They stepped back to focus on a big life event and are ready to return 
  • They’ve gained skills elsewhere to be able to return and grow in a new role 
  • They see an opportunity to work with a previous manager or team they really enjoyed 
  • Their priorities have shifted and felt like a familiar place provides more flexibility 
  • Their former company has since grown and created new roles and growth opportunities that happen to match their current needs and aspirations  
  • They wanted to take a longer break than a sabbatical would allow pursuing a hobby or passion 
  • New leadership in a former company can cause employees to boomerang (they enjoyed their previous roles but didn’t enjoy leadership) 
  • Employee benefits, compensation, and other perks are better 
  • They have a robust network at the company to help them get hired and succeed

Boomerang employees and the Great Resignation 

Amid the Great Resignation (or, the Great Reshuffle), employees are quitting their jobs in record numbers. As business psychologist Anthony Klotz said, boomerang employees will be one of the biggest trends to come out of the Great Resignation. 

Companies are on hiring frenzies. There are millions of open positions and stiff competition for talent. And while the Great Resignation left many employees searching for purpose, meaning, and clarity, it also led some back to where they were before. 

For some employees, perhaps they caught a case of turnover contagion. They might’ve started in their new company and realized the grass isn’t always greener. 

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I have one friend who recently boomeranged back to a former company after quitting in early 2020. When she left originally, this particular friend was looking for a new challenge, something to push her outside of her comfort zone.

At the time, her company didn’t have any roles she was interested in. But she believed strongly in the company’s mission. She felt a purpose in her work — she just needed to find a role that allowed her to grow. 

While she found another role elsewhere, she soon realized she missed her former company’s leadership and culture. She waited until there was an open position that more closely matched where she wanted to take her career. And eventually, she found her way back and was rehired. 

Pros and cons of hiring a boomerang employee

Talent is complicated. And we know that where you source your talent matters. Hiring boomerang employees comes with its own set of pros and cons. Explore some of these benefits and drawbacks. And learn what to look out for (both positive and negative) in a rehire. 

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Pros 

There are benefits to rehiring a previous worker. Here are three reasons your organization can benefit from boomerang hires.

  • It can save your company money and time. Well, time is money, right? If your organization already knows the employee well, you can likely cut back on those rounds of interviews.

    Think about all of the surprises that can come up through the sourcing, recruiting, and interviewing processes
    . With a boomerang, you kind of know what you’re getting, right? You may be able to streamline other aspects of your hiring process. In the end, it’ll save your organization time and money. 

  • There’s a familiarity with company culture, expectations, and, oftentimes, the team and role. Your boomerang hire already knows the company well. They’ve acclimated to how your organization operates. They likely have already been a cultural add to your organization. And they may even be familiar with the position and team. 
  • Rehired workers bring new skills, perspectives, and learnings back to the organization. It’s incredibly difficult to not learn anything when a person starts a new job in a new company. Boomerang employees are likely bringing a wealth of knowledge back to the organization.

    Often they’ve spent some time working for a competitor or in a relevant, adjacent industry. This knowledge can positively impact your business, from new and diverse perspectives to recommended process changes to creative ideas

Cons 

Of course, there are also cons to hiring a boomerang employee. Here are four things hiring managers should consider: 

  • There’s potential for toxicity to bleed into the workplace. If this boomerang employee left on less than a high note, they could be carrying some toxic traits back with them.

    This is obviously on a case-by-case basis, but be aware of how the boomeranged employee left the organization in the first place. It’s always good to check in with HR and previous colleagues to gauge sentiment. 
  • They might have been hired for culture fit, not culture add. Company culture is a living, breathing organism. It should constantly be evolving, growing, and getting better than it was the day before.

    This only happens if your organization is hiring for a culture add, not a cultural fit. But this might come as a change for many organizations, especially in these last few years. If this previous employee was hired prior to an intentional focus on company culture, you risk letting your culture slip. 
  • They could be only motivated by benefits, higher pay, and perks. Get down to the motive behind the employee wishing to return to your organization. If your company has recently adjusted its benefits offerings (especially in response to the pandemic), you might want to dig into that a little bit.

    Are they interested in the role? Do they see growth opportunities? Or is the main motivator employee benefits? Figure out why they want to boomerang and it can help guide how you approach your hiring strategy.
  • They might be resistant to change. A boomerang may be dwelling in a kind of work- or career nostalgia. Maybe your company was the place where they started, all fresh-faced and idealistic. Or maybe the company was a lot smaller and more like a family then.

    If the boomerang isn’t realistic about how the company has changed, everyone may be set up for disappointment. A boomerang employee may subconsciously think they are returning to some happier, more familiar place. That place might not align with reality. 

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Who makes a good boomerang employee? 

The most important thing to look for in a boomerang employee is a pleasant and amicable first departure. The best boomerang employees always start with the folks who have left the organization on good terms. 

Beyond that, it’s pretty subjective. And while that’s not the easiest answer, it’s important to recognize. You have to get to know the whole person to truly understand their desires and goals. 

Your organization needs to examine the motives behind why they’d like to be rehired. For example, if an employee left for personal or family reasons. Or, some might like to return after having gained new experiences elsewhere. 

There are many different reasons for wanting to return. Whether it makes sense for the company depends on factors including how and why they left, but also how and why they want to return.

Keep an eye out for these red flags 

If you’re interviewing a potential boomerang employee, learn more about these three things: 

  • If previous teammates, colleagues, and managers report issues with conflict or toxicity.
  • Unclear reasons for wanting to return or inability to articulate why they’d like to return. 
  • A negative track record of performance, accountability, and meeting expectations. 

How to interview a boomerang employee

Try some of these example interview questions for a boomerang employee. 

  • What have you been doing since you left the company? 
  • What made you want to return to the company? 
  • How have you developed your skills and experience since working here? 
  • Are there any unresolved issues with colleagues or managers here? Are there any unresolved issues with the company? 
  • Why is now the right time to return? 
  • How has your perspective evolved since you worked here before? 

How to encourage the boomerang effect 

The boomerang effect is already growing. Here are some ways you can encourage the boomerang effect in your organization. 

How to turn company alumni into boomerang employees 

Just as much as an employee would like to leave a company on good terms, so should the company leave the employee. Good leavers make good returners and referrals. First, take a good look at your exit interview strategy

The exit interview is a candid and intentional moment to capture feedback from employees. It’s the opportunity to listen to and understand feedback. It’s also an opportunity to plant the seed forever returning in the future. Make sure employees know they’re welcome to return, especially in these final stages prior to their departure. Encourage that sense of belonging through to the end of their employment. 

You also want to consider the employee experience. Of course, every organization wants its employees to have a remarkable employee experience. Invest in ways to create an employee experience that lends itself to growth, discovery, and learning. If you’re unable to leave a good taste in your employees’ mouths about their experience, it’s unlikely they’ll want to return. 

How to lure company alumni back 

There’s a difference between waiting for boomerangs to come back and actively recruiting boomerangs. 

We know that social networks wield incredible power when it comes to filling open positions. If your team is opening a new position, consider previous employees. Don’t be afraid to keep in touch with previous employees on platforms like LinkedIn. 

Arm your recruiting teams with the resources they need to expand their candidate reach. Make sure your recruiters are reaching out to all qualified candidates, including previous employees. And most importantly, keep an open mind and challenge yourself to adopt a growth mindset

Especially for your frontline managers, it might feel like a breakup when an employee moves on to their next role. It’s important you and your leaders understand employees’ needs. Without that keen understanding, there’s a risk of taking their career decisions personally. Just because an employee quit their job doesn’t mean they won’t succeed at your company again. 

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Onboarding a boomerang employee

Boomerang employees are already probably familiar with the company and its onboarding process. While there are some perks to re-onboarding rehires, here are some things to keep in mind in the hiring process. Spoiler alert: they should all still participate in new hire onboarding. 

What to do 

  • Encourage boomerang employees to participate in the onboarding process 
  • Check-in with boomerang employees periodically throughout the onboarding process 
  • Give them space to reacclimate and ramp up, especially if it’s been some time since they originally worked at your company 
  • Provide opportunities for feedback and gauge employee engagement 

What not to do 

  • Don’t allow them to opt-out of new hire orientation 
  • Try not to shorten and/or truncate the onboarding process, even if they’ve been through it before 
  • Don’t assume they are 100% up-to-speed once you’ve rehired them 

Start capturing boomerang employees 

Returning employees can bring incredible value to your employees. When an employee returns, it’s an opportunity to get an edge on the tight labor market. It’s an opportunity for a fresh perspective. And it’s an opportunity to bring new skill sets to the team. 

New opportunities are plentiful. If you’re rehiring boomerang employees, invest in their potential and success. When returning employees are rejoining teams, it’s important that all team members feel valued and heard. 

With BetterUp, you can bring out the best in your workforce. While hiring boomerang employees may take less time, it can also cause stress for new and old team members alike.

By providing personalized support through virtual coaching, you’re investing in your people. And through coaching, you can unlock your workforce’s potential to bring success to your business. 

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Published April 7, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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