“Boomerang” employees: Everything you need to know

Sometimes staff come back. But is rehiring former employees always the right move?

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Prompted by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the “Great Resignation” saw thousands of employees packing up their belongings and seeking work in new roles — and in some cases entirely new industries.

But as the dust begins to settle, some experts are now suggesting that we may be about to see an influx of employees returning to their former roles — and in some cases their former employers — in what they’re referring to as “The Great Regret”.

With this in mind, here’s what managers and business owners should know about these so-called “boomerang employees”, from the pros and cons of rehiring a former employee, to how best to re-board them if you decide to.


What is a boomerang employee?

A boomerang employee is a member of staff who leaves your business but is then rehired at a later date. They might return to their original position, or they might come back in an entirely new role — either way, the same term can still be applied.

Boomerang employees tend to be staff who leave and return of their own volition, but it’s not unheard of for staff who were dismissed to come back or reapply for jobs with their former employers.

Why do boomerang employees come back?

The exact reasons why an employee might decide to return to a former employer are as individual and varied as the reasons why they might decide to quit in the first place.

That being said, there are a few common causes that manager might encounter:

  • A change in personal circumstances. Life happens. Sometimes, even when we make plans for our careers or home life, something happens and we realise we’d be better off where we used to be.
  • Previous staff applying for a more senior role. They left, picked up new skills, and now they’re applying for a more senior role — either because it’s been newly created or because someone else left and a gap in the team has opened up.
  • The grass wasn’t greener. Having left in search of something new or better, an employee decides that their new role or career path isn’t right for them, and decides to come back.
  • You’re a more attractive employer now. Or it could be that, in the time since your former employee left, your business has grown and is a more appealing prospect than it used to be, offering more and exciting roles or better pay and employee benefits.
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Pros of rehiring a former employee

For employers especially, there are a number of benefits to taking on former employees. For instance:

They’re cheaper to onboard. It costs up to £30,000 to hire and onboard a typical employee, so there are potentially major savings to be had by bringing back a former member of staff who will naturally require less time to train than someone who’s brand new.

They already know their colleagues. In many cases, staff who’ve worked for you previously will also know many of your staff, helping them form or renew bonds quickly, which can be great for morale and company culture.

They’ve levelled up. In many cases, boomerang employees return with more skills and professional experience than they had before, making them even more valuable members of your team than they used to be.

Enhance company culture. A former member of staff returning to your company can send a clear message to your wider team — here’s someone who left, saw what else is out there, and then decided to come back!

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Cons of rehiring a former employee

On the other hand, employers would be wise to consider the potential negative factors when rehiring a past employee…

Things might have changed in their absence. It’s possible that your company — for instance its culture, procedures, or organisational structure — has changed since your returning employee left. In such cases, past employees might struggle to re-integrate, finding some new ways of doing things jarring or even upsetting.

They left for a reason. Are they coming back because they genuinely want to, or in spite of the reasons they left originally? It’s important to have a good understanding of the reason an employee left before considering bringing them back.

Impact on your existing team. Former peers returning in a more senior role can sometimes create feelings of resentment among existing staff. Similarly, staff who have stuck with you for a long time might begin to feel that their loyalty isn’t valued if peers who quit one day are welcomed back another.

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Top tips for how to rehire a boomerang employee

Taking on a returning employee is not without its benefits, but it can also present a unique set of challenges for managers to overcome.

Here are our top tips for hiring boomerang employees:

  1. Talk it out
  2. Reboard with care
  3. Rehire people who left on good terms
  4. Consider the impact on your other staff
  5. Stay humble

Let's look at each of these in a little more detail...

1. Talk it out

Managers interviewing returning employees will have a lot more ground to cover than just asking the usual interview questions. Before either of you fully commits to working together again, it’s important to know that you’re both on the same page.

During the interview process, be sure to talk about:

  • Why they left. You’ll probably have a record of this from your employee’s exit interview or resignation letter, but it’s important to discuss why they left in the first place and what, if anything, has brought them back.
  • Why they’re leaving their current employer. What they say about the current employer — especially if it’s the one they left your business to go and work for — will provide a lot of insight into their motivation for returning and whether they’ll stick around this time.
  • What’s changed (and what hasn’t). Be sure to talk about any new processes you’ve brought in or changes you made to the team since they left. Similarly, touch on anything that’s remained the same if you happen to know they weren’t particularly fond of it in the past.

2. Reboard with care

While onboarding — or, rather, reboarding — a former employee will be easier than welcoming a complete newbie, beware glossing over the minor details or assuming that they’ll remember everything from their previous time with you.

Returning employees should be given the same opportunities to learn and ask questions as new hires. From a compliance perspective, too, it’s imperative that they’ve given all the relevant health and safety training, and that you check all the boxes that the law requires.

3. Rehire people who left on good terms

It can be tempting to welcome back any former employee, especially when you’re short-staffed or struggling to hire.

But staff who left your business on bad terms — for instance, leaving without giving proper notice or whose relationships with their managers were strained — might not always be the safest bet.

Where possible, it’s best to give precedence to employees who left on good terms over those who didn’t. That’s not to say that people shouldn’t be given a second chance, of course — simply that any staff whose departure was left than ideal should be able to demonstrate that they (or the circumstances leading up to their past resignation) have changed.

4. Consider the impact on your other staff

It’s important to consider how well your current and returning staff worked together previously, and whether their sudden return might ruffle any feathers.

If you’re thinking of rehiring a past employee, be sure to make the rest of their team know prior to their arrival, and give them ample opportunity to ask questions or raise any concerns they might have — after all, there’s no point filling a gap in your workforce with a former employee only to lose a current one as a result.

On a similar note, if your boomerang employee is returning in a more senior or managerial role, be sure to give them plenty of support and advice for managing former peers.

5. Stay humble

Keep in mind that, while it takes guts to quit your job and go after something better, it takes even more to ask for your old job back. While some past employees might be returning to you because they want to, others might be doing so out of necessity.

In such situations, try to focus on the positives — i.e. how great it is to have them back, and what you as their manager can do to help them enjoy their role more — and to encourage your staff to do the same.

The last few years have been difficult for everyone, so we could all benefit from a little bit of support and solidarity when the need arises.

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Tips for returning employees

The majority of this blog has been aimed at managers, but if you’re reading this then there’s a good chance that you yourself are considering returning to a former business, role, or industry.

If we’re describing you, then here are five things to do and ask yourself before you bite the bullet.

1. Why do I really want to go back?

The big question — and one that you’ll inevitably be asked by your former boss when you apply for a job.

It’s important to be honest with yourself (and with your employer) about why you want to return. Are you going back because there are new opportunities at the business, or is your return more out of necessity or because things didn’t work out with your new employer?

Consider whether boomeranging really is the right decision for you, and be wary of going back purely because it’s the more comfortable or familiar option as doing so is unlikely to make you happy in the long run.

2. What do you want to do differently this time?

Reflect on the business or role you left and consider the reasons why you left in the first place. If the same sticking points would still exist on your return, then how would you handle them this time round?

It’s also worth considering what small changes you might like your former employer to make to facilitate your return, should this be possible. Would any of these things be deal-breakers for you?

Be sure to have positive, constructive answers ready as employers will be keen to revisit past grievances if they existed.

3. What can you offer them now that you couldn’t before?

When applying for jobs with a former employer — or even applying for your old job — it’s important to present yourself in the best possible light, and show what the “new” you has to offer in terms of skills and experience.

Some employers will be reluctant to rehire staff who bounce back to them after less than 12 months’ time, so the onus will be on you to show how you’ve grown as both a person and an employee during the time you’ve been apart.

4. Can you handle things being different from how you remember?

Keep in mind that some things may have changed since you left the business. You might have a new manager, for instance, or your former colleagues might have moved on or have new responsibilities within the business.

In some cases, boomerang employees find themselves feeling a little lost when they first start back in an old role. This is only natural and usually passes over time, but it’s important to be prepared for this, so as not to feel a kind of “reverse culture shock”.

5. Stay positive

It’s easy to feel anxious, or even embarrassed, when you’re returning to a former employer, especially if you’re going back to a role that you’ve worked in before.

But it’s nothing to be embarrassed about, and sometimes going back to a previous job can still be a step forward. Ultimately, you’ll know whether going back is the right move for you.

Stay positive, stay focused on your long-term goals, and treat this as a new chapter — one that you can enjoy with the benefit of hindsight and additional skills and experience.


Wrap-up

Whether or not “The Great Regret” will come to pass, only time will tell. The impact of Covid-19 on the jobs market aside, however, employees can and do return to previous roles, companies, and industries.

Rehiring a former employee isn’t without its risks — if the reason they left in the first place hasn’t been resolved, then history may end up repeating itself. But there are a multitude of benefits to welcoming back a boomerang employee, including less time and cost spent training and onboarding.

Just be sure to speak openly about the reasons why your employee left, what they’re hoping will be different this time around, and what each of you can bring to the table as you reconnect.

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