2020 and 2021 saw the “Great Resignation”: a mass movement of workers out of their current jobs and in search of something new. The immediate cause of this was, of course, the unprecedented situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic, with workers and businesses alike struggling with enormous new challenges.
Those pandemic-related causes weren’t the only reasons behind so many workers leaving their jobs – although, in many cases, the pandemic may have thrown pre-existing issues into sharper relief or shifted employees’ priorities. Some workers were able to leverage the worker-friendly labor market for better pay or a promotion, while others simply wanted to gain more or different experience that their current positions didn’t offer. Some employees left due to cultural problems within their companies, from issues with individual supervisors to top-down culture issues that weren’t being addressed. For some, the decision to leave was more personal: baby boomers stepping back after long careers or employees of all generations needing to prioritize family issues.
According to research from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker works for twelve different employers over the course of their careers.1 In years past, the idea of hiring back previous employees was generally viewed negatively, and many employees had no interest in returning to past companies either. With the tightening of the labor market, however, there has been a shift in thinking about rehiring past employees.
Some companies have even gone so far as to develop “alumni” networks. The idea of these networks is that companies invest time and resources in developing talent, and they see it as beneficial to stay in touch, even if those employees eventually depart the organization. Not only does it make for an appealing prospect to potential employees (who wouldn’t love to be part of a robust professional network?), but it also means that there’s already infrastructure in place to keep track of and reach out to potential rehires.
When Does Rehiring Make Sense – Or Not?
In many cases, changing jobs doesn’t mean burned bridges or a negative impression on either the part of the employee or the company. It’s just time for a change. According to Andy Chand, Executive Vice President at Chester’s Chicken, companies can look at that as a positive when it comes to rehiring.
“Many times, people leave an organization [because of] factors inside the organization and out. It could be just that it didn’t fit that person’s lifestyle at that point in time, and they needed to move on to something different that did fit their lifestyle. I think that that should not be something that you look at as a negative. I think it should be something to look at as a positive: when you’re looking at an individual to be introspective as an employee to say, ‘hey, this is not going to work for me. I need to move on to something else.’”
One key group of former employees to look at is those who left because they found themselves hemmed in within the organizational hierarchy the first time around. Steve White, President and COO of PuroClean, calls this “career blocked. It is a situation where the path to promotion is too narrow or slow for even high performers to achieve promotions past a certain level.
“Sometimes some of our departments are not very big,” he explains, citing the example of a particular department’s “phenomenal” VP. “I hope he’s here for years to come, but that means that the people directly beneath them are going to be career blocked. They’re not going to have the opportunity to move up here, unless they change departments.” As a result, great employees may choose to part ways with the company to get that career progression – but they also may be amazing candidates to come back in a new role. The return of past employees, now even further along in their careers, can even signal to existing or potential new employees that this company is a great place to work and that the grass isn’t actually greener elsewhere.
Does rehiring always make sense? Obviously, rehiring an employee who didn’t leave on great terms might not work out, but otherwise, it depends on the situation, says Chand.
“If it was an internal issue, and that person left, putting them [back] in those same parameters will just lead them to failure,” he explains. For instance, putting a returning employee back under the same supervisor they cited as a reason to leave probably wouldn’t work out for anyone. The key, he says, is looking carefully at what unfolded the first time around and deciding whether those issues are still in play.
“What were the obstacles that were in their way when they were in the organization? How did we remove them and put them in a better situation? I think that’s going to be key.”
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Rehiring
At first glance, there are numerous advantages to rehiring past employees who left on good terms. The right rehire can be the ideal mix of familiarity and freshness. Since they’ve worked for the company before, onboarding costs can be reduced. Their familiarity will also allow them to get up to speed quickly, without as much of a learning curve as an outside hire. With their time away from the company, they also can bring a fresh perspective, plus new knowledge and skills that they may not have had the first time around.
“You know what you’re getting into – not only the culture [fit], but then also their work ethic, their skill, their capability; you’ve got your eyes wide open. It’s not a question mark or rolling the dice,” says Jim Metevier, President and COO of Mountain Mike’s Pizza.
Chand agrees, also noting that this prior knowledge can help to place a returning employee in a position where they can excel even more, since both company and employer know what did and didn’t work in the past.
“I think putting people in places that they will get engaged in the workplace is the most important thing… I think it’s really important in this day and age to understand the potential hire and what they’re wanting, and set them up for success.”
On the flip side, however, that same familiarity can be a red flag.
“If somebody left badly, then, those relationships are going to be an issue,” White says. There’s a wide range between a totally seamless exit and a totally disastrous one, and looking at the specifics of each situation is crucial to ensuring that rehiring isn’t a mistake.
Is there really a disadvantage to boomerang employees, if they otherwise have a positive history with the company? “The only thing I would say could potentially be a disadvantage would be, maybe you’re not bringing diversity of thought or fresh thinking into the organization. Just because they did it a particular way that you liked, maybe you’re missing out on something if you’re not taking a risk [and] bringing some other type of person in,” Metevier says.
How to Make a Rehiring Successful
So you’ve decided to move forward with rehiring a “boomerang” employee. What now?
“I think the obvious point is really clear expectations. Really clearly define the role, with clear expectations – and not just in your conversation with [the employee], but on your reintroduction to the team, so that nobody assumes this is a continuation of when they were here before,” says White. “People tend to fall into these relational patterns, and I think we have to disrupt that. We have to say, ‘This is not what it used to be. This is a whole new thing.’ It’s a person we’re familiar with and we know and like, and know what to expect from and know that they fit into our culture, but they’re coming into a whole different role.”
Chand agrees. “[It’s important to] take a look and seeing where they were excelling – if they were excelling at all, they might not have been – and finding a way to put them in a position where they can excel even better… On the flip side of it, if you take a look at where they were struggling, find out how to take away that obstacle or at least mitigate some of the obstacle of struggle. It is critical, when you’re rehiring an employee, to understand all those pieces before you hire them.”
With the right approach, boomerang employees can be a real benefit to a company. Revisit the previous business relationship, set reasonable expectations, and ensure that everything is in place for them to succeed, and this second chance just might be exactly what everyone needed.
About the Author
Nancy Estep-Critchett is a founding Partner of Blue Rock Search, with oversight of the Franchise Practice. She has 30 years of successful working experience as a business advisor and executive recruiter in the franchising space. Nancy has built solid relationships which have spanned decades with industry professionals and internationally recognized brands.
Blue Rock Search is a 100% minority/female-owned executive search firm, an SRA Network member, a Hunt Scanlon Top 10 global recruiting firm, and a member of the Hunt Scanlon HR/Diversity Recruiting Power 65. We specialize in the targeted identification, assessment, and placement of executives across four distinct practice areas: Human Resources, Franchise, Higher Education, and Customer Experience.
Are you looking for top talent in human resources, franchising, customer experience, or higher education?
Contact us to learn more about how we can deliver the talent you need to succeed. Our systems, processes, and tools are designed to flex to the unique needs and expectations of any search.