The concept of “boomerang” employees—who leave and eventually return to their ex-employers—is certainly not brand new, but in the pandemic’s aftermath, the idea is getting more traction with both workers and employers. And, experts say, to take advantage of this growing trend, HR needs to be proactive and strategic.
Recent research from LinkedIn on the phenomenon found that, in 2021, boomeranging accounted for 4.3% of all job switches; in 2010, it was less than 2%. Also, workers are coming back more quickly: Now, the average time for U.S. boomerang hires is 17.3 months after employees leave; it was 21.8 months in 2010.
Why the growth in boomerang employees?
The pandemic gave rise to the Great Resignation—as employees re-envisioned the meaning of work and took advantage of a hot labor market. But, once the honeymoon period at new employers ended, the unfamiliar environment may have amplified challenges, says Greg Barnett, chief people scientist at Top Workplaces.
”Without the comfort or safety net employees were accustomed to—like good managerial and colleague relationships—employees began to turn back to their prior employer,” he explains.
It’s a trend that could continue. According to a six-country survey of nearly 4,000 people by UKG, nearly one in five who quit during the pandemic have already boomeranged to the job they left. And for those who haven’t returned to the fold quite yet, 41% would consider it, if given the chance.
An ‘extremely valuable’ opportunity
Barnett recently spoke with HRE about what HR needs to do to take advantage of the growing boomerang trend.
HRE: What makes boomerang employees a valuable talent pool that employers should consider?
Barnett: There are some key reasons why HR and business leaders should consider boomerang employees as a valuable talent pool. One, boomerang employees can get back up to speed easily and do it much faster than a new employee could. These employees immediately understand the business, the culture and the people. They know how business processes work, how to get things done and who to connect with.
Finally, boomerang employees have experienced another workplace culture and understand what culture they’re stepping back into. Employees are unlikely to boomerang to a culture they didn’t fit into, and may even value the culture more.
Organizations know who they are getting when a boomerang employee returns. HR leaders already know their strengths and weaknesses on their first day, creating less risk for the business.
HRE: How can HR leaders take a proactive role to ensure a smooth rehiring process?
Barnett: When re-integrating a boomerang employee, it’s crucial to understand the real reason an employee left the organization and address those issues before potentially rehiring. While compensation can be the most obvious issue, it may not capture the real reason someone became disengaged.
Employers can also be proactive by being candid with boomerang employees about how their return to the company will improve and change. Ultimately, HR leaders should find a way to make a boomerang employees’ return experience better, whether it’s with different work or more growth and advancement opportunities.
HRE: How can HR leaders effectively manage employee expectations before their return?
Barnett: It’s very important not to rush to hire an ex-employee and understand why an employee wants to return to an organization. HR leaders should carefully consider an employee’s motivation to return and whether it’s right for both the employee and the organization.
In some cases, time away could have helped an employee realize how much they love the mission, values and direction of their old employer and its culture. In others, employees may not be happy with their new employer and see “boomeranging” as the safest option. This situation is unlikely to be successful unless the boomerang employee will return to the organization with a new role or different responsibilities.
It’s also crucial to set pay expectations up-front. If an employee left, their pay likely increased at another company. Discussions about compensation expectations should be front and center. Organizations must determine whether they can afford the boomerang employees, whether it will upset pay equity and if they’re prepared to increase compensation in similar roles.
When an employee returns to an organization, other employees will likely assume the boomerang employee is making more money. Unfortunately, it can send the wrong message to existing employees that, in order to get paid more, they need to quit and come back.
HRE: How can an HR leader wisely include boomerang employees in their workforce planning?
Barnett: It’s crucial for HR leaders to do their due diligence and incorporate adequate time in the rehiring process to determine if an employee wants to return for the right reasons. If so, they can be extremely valuable for the workforce. HR leaders should always consider the possibility that past employees could be good future employees for workforce planning.
Boomerang employees had different and new experiences, as well as opportunities to grow elsewhere that can provide additional value to the company they’re rejoining. However, if there isn’t clear communication between HR and the employee on all aspects of what rejoining the company will look like, this can lead to misaligned expectations on how their return will be better than before.