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How bringing back “boomerang” employees can help fix your hiring gap

Posted by Kanika Sinha

January 14, 2022    |     4-minute read (699 words)

Hidden behind the record number of U.S. employees quitting their jobs, aka the Great Resignation, lies another eye-opening phenomenon, according to a 2021 Business Insider report. An increasing number of employees, who are often dubbed boomerangs, quit their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic but have quietly returned to take a new position from their previous employers.

Data from LinkedIn, as reported by The Wall Street Journal, shows that boomerang employees accounted for 4.5% of all new hires among businesses on the professional networking platform in 2021, up from 3.9% in 2019. And this wave of boomerang employees is not a one-off; it is likely to last for the next five years, said Anthony Klotz, associate professor of management at Texas A&M University, in an interview with Wired.

While some leaders are hesitant to onboard an employee who once abandoned ship, with so many organizations grappling with a tight labor market and skill shortages, they may be better off welcoming boomerang employees back and giving them the space to do even better things.

Back to the basics

What are boomerang employees? As the name implies, they are employees who leave an organization and then later return to work for the same organization. Their reasons for leaving vary widely, from accepting what appeared to be a promising opportunity to simply needing to hit reset to deal with burnout. 

Why are they returning? Soon after leaving an organization, some employees realized that maybe the grass isn’t greener on the other side. Their new jobs may not have been the right fit for their skills, for example, or they may have been denied a more flexible work schedule or better pay. Others might have mistaken the general stagnation of the pandemic as a sign of a stalled career. For whatever reason, these boomerang employees feel ready to return to work in a familiar place: their previous organization. 

Boomerang employees bring value 

Traditionally, leaving an organization was once looked upon as a sign of disloyalty, particularly if an employee had spent years working there. But times are changing. But nowadays, many employees leave on good terms, even sharing their new contact information and staying in touch with previous employers.  

Here are four key reasons to consider boomerang employees: 

They are more predictable than external hires: A February 2021 analysis published by Harvard Business Review suggests boomerang employees are more predictable than outside hires. Their future behavior is likely to be consistent with the behavior that they exhibited during their initial tenure, while that of the external hire is an unknown variable.

They may contribute more quickly than other types of hires: HBR’s research also finds that boomerang employees tend to have better immediate job performance, incur lower training costs and require less onboarding time, all of which make them more attractive to businesses looking to fill staffing needs fast.

They understand the organization: Even if they’ve been gone for a while and need a bit of training, boomerang employees generally understand how the business works. They are familiar with its structure, systems, processes and customers as well as the work culture.

They bring back new skill sets and knowledge: While working for a different employer, boomerang employees likely acquired new skills. Businesses stand to gain from the enhanced knowledge, fresh perspectives and innovative ideas that boomerang employees can offer.

But there are costs too

HBR's research also finds that boomerang employees do not appear to return with higher levels of commitment, and that they are more likely to resign again than both new hires and internal promotions. 

Simply put, since they have left an organization once, they may be willing to do so again. But this is a risk that an organization must deal with for any potential hire.

Takeaway

As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us, some employee departures are done out of necessity. If a stellar former employee reaches out to talk about potentially returning to the organization, it may be worth having a conversation. As the research found, a boomerang worker is apt to perform about the same as before they left, so bringing back a valuable ex-employee could make good business sense.

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